The Chinese government announced on Sept. 16 its formal application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP. The response in the international community has been mixed. Among CPTPP members, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Mexico and Chile warmly welcomed the application, while Japan, Australia and Canada expressed skepticism and a negative attitude. The U.S. reacted strongly, with many hawkish politicians and experts loudly accusing China of being “unqualified.”
Just six days after the announcement, Taiwan authorities also filed an application, which was immediately welcomed by both the U.S. and Japan. These developments seem to support the necessity and timeliness of Beijing’s move.
The CPTPP, previously known as the TPP, was initiated by the Obama administration to contain China economically. It was signed in February 2016. The TPP did not take effect because of the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw in 2017, and in March 2018, the other 11 economies participating in TPP negotiations reached a new agreement. The CPTPP removes many of the provisions proposed by the U.S. and opposed by other countries, including one allowing multinational corporations to sue member governments. The evolution of the TPP into the CPTPP has itself been a failure of the U.S. strategy to contain China.
The agreement is now in force among seven member countries: Mexico, Japan, Singapore, New Zealand, Canada, Australia and Vietnam. Brunei, Chile, Malaysia and Peru are waiting for approval by their respective legislatures. Under the procedures laid down by the CPTPP commission, new applicants are required to proactively have consultations with each party to address questions or concerns in areas of interest.
Britain formally applied for membership at the beginning of this year and has now reached an agreement with every CPTPP member, just one step away from full membership, and the Republic of Korea has announced a plan to apply for membership, which is expected to be a relatively easy process. By contrast, since China faces resistance and obstacles, complicated by the Taiwan factor, the accession process is expected to be tortuous and long. Yet the Chinese decision was well thought out, and the country’s objective is by no means merely to become a member of the CPTPP as soon as possible.
The Biden administration in the U.S. has carried on Trump’s strategies and stepped up strategic moves in Asia to contain China. But with its declining economic competitiveness and political crises at home, the U.S. has been unable to provide more market space for Asian countries and has no intention of joining the CPTPP again for the international economic integration process in the Asia-Pacific region.
The U.S. continues to invest substantial military, political and diplomatic resources in Asia to strengthen its control over its allies, build up its encirclement of China and try to provoke, through proxies, military conflicts with China. Asian countries, however, are well aware that the American moves are exacerbating regional security risks and creating political instability instead of delivering the economic growth truly needed in the region.
On the other hand, China has been stepping up its participation in, and promotion of, the international economic integration of the Asia Pacific region. It has actively consulted and signed free trade agreements with various neighboring countries and pushed for the China-Japan-ROK Free Trade Area. It also successfully pushed for the conclusion at the end of last year of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement (RCEP), which provides a new institutional framework for an Asia Pacific free trade economic circle in the coming decades. In fact, the RCEP agreement, signed by China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and all 10 ASEAN members, already includes most of the CPTPP members.
China has a large population and a vast market. It is connected by land with Russia and many other countries in Central, South and Southeast Asia and has maritime transportation lanes linking different oceans. The country is the focus and cornerstone of peace and development in Asia. By applying to join the CPTPP, China is in a better position to conduct in-depth consultations with Asian and neighboring countries and foster common understandings. It must open up its market further, which will be conducive to promoting economic and trade cooperation with other countries and maintaining peace and stability in Asia.
Friedrich Ratzel, a 19th-century German sociologist, made an important point about the struggle for prosperity. In his view, humans seek prosperity and security on two tracks: economic and political. The former relies on production and exchanges and is relatively equal and fair. The latter primarily focuses on force and power, including fraud, pillage and various other unequal coercive transactions. The history of humanity is marked by many victories of economic means over political ones. Although political means have always been there, the general trend is that politics will be subordinate to economics.
Ratzel’s remarkable insight has proved true again in the development of tensions and conflicts between China and the United States in recent years. China seeks economic cooperation while the U.S. has only politics, which is very pushy but not especially workable nor durable.