China to attend TPP negotiations in Chile this week

By Chen Weihua | Updated: 2017-03-13 04:58

No one could have foreseen this just a little more than four months ago: The next meeting for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will be held in Chile's capital Santiago after the withdrawal of the United States and with the participation of China.

Representatives from 12 countries that formed the TPP, plus China and South Korea, will meet March 14-15 for the first time since US President Donald Trump announced his country's exit from the group, according to Reuters.

Asked on Friday whether China plans to attend the meeting, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the Chinese side supports economic integration in the Asia-Pacific and stands ready to enhance communication and coordination with Chile and other relevant countries to build FTAAP (Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific), create an open Asia-Pacific economy and inject new impetus to economic growth in the region and beyond.

"We hope that the meeting will help realize the goals. To my knowledge, the Chinese side is actively considering attendance at the meeting," Geng told the daily briefing in Beijing.

The 12 economies signing the TPP in February last year included the US, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

To most nations, the withdrawal of the US, the largest economy in the group, literally killed the TPP. However, many still have not given up. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe travelled to the US twice to meet Trump after his election win and after his inauguration in a bid to persuade Trump. Japan is the only economy which has ratified the TPP.

Even within the US, many trade experts and former officials, especially those who had worked hard in the Barack Obama administration to push for the TPP, have also tried to lobby the Trump administration to change its mind.

Just last Tuesday, the Asia Society Policy Institute issued a report on trade and economic integration in the Asia-Pacific, urging the US government to reconsider its position on TPP, even with possible adjustments.

However, Trump and his Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross have repeatedly expressed their views that bilateral trade agreements, instead of multilateral agreements, would serve the US better economically.

The TPP has been criticized by some in the US for being oversold as a geopolitical tool against China, the largest trading partner for many countries in the Asia-Pacific, including the 12 TPP members.

Former President Obama had said on various occasions that "the US, not China, should write the rules of the global economy."

That kind of rhetoric has deepened suspicions among many Chinese that the Obama administration was weaponizing TPP as a part of its rebalance to Asia strategy to curtail the rise of China.

The views of the Chinese government, however, have evolved over time, from initially regarding the TPP as a US containment strategy to expressing an interest to understand more of the US-led agreement.

China has been working with 15 other Asia-Pacific economies to advance the negotiations of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), between the 10 ASEAN countries, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

Just a week ago, the 16 RCEP economies concluded its five-day 17th round of negotiations in Kobe, Japan. They will meet again in the Philippines in May and India in July for the next two rounds of talks.

While the original plan to conclude the RCEP by the end of year still looks uncertain, the RCEP has been regarded as a viable way for regional economic integration after Trump sounded the death knell of TPP on Jan 23.

Trump was not the only one opposing TPP. Three other top contenders in the 2016 US presidential election — Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz — all opposed TPP.

Many US economists and trade experts believe that the strong anti-TPP sentiment among Americans has been largely due to the poor job the US government has done in helping vulnerable groups negatively affected by past free trade agreements.

During the APEC leaders’ summit in Beijing in Nov 2014, both TPP and RCEP were envisioned as possible pathways to an FTAAP.

While China's participation in the TPP meeting in Chile this week is set to make major headlines, no one seems sure about the fate of TPP after the US withdrawal or whether and when China might join the TPP negotiations.

One thing that seems sure is that China has increasingly expressed its support for globalization and open trade while the Trump administration increasingly smacks of protectionism and isolationism.

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Washington Journal

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