China cautious about taking lead on free trade

By Wang Cong Source:Global Times Published: 2017/3/15 23:28:39

Nation’s support for regional and global economic integration unchanged

Businessmen from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) show their products at the 13th China-ASEAN Expo in Nanning, capital of South China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, in September 2016. Photo: CFP

Despite talk of China filling the void of advocating for regional and international free trade left by the US under President Donald Trump, China is urging caution in making moves on regional trade deals, while reaffirming its support for economic integration.

Premier Li Keqiang said on Wednesday at a press conference following the two sessions in Beijing that China always supports economic globalization and free trade, but is not interested in taking the place of others to do things outside of its authority.

"With regard to regional free trade arrangements, we are open and willing to push forward the ones that involve China and are qualified," Li said. But "we will not exceed our reach to do things that China is not supposed to do."

The Premier said China, like many, is a beneficiary of economic globalization, and will participate and push for things that are good for trade liberalization, but that "protecting global free trade needs joint efforts from all countries because the world belongs to everyone."

Li's comments come after intense speculations that China might take the lead in promoting free trade in Asia Pacific or may even join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), following China's decision to participate in a meeting in Chile with TPP countries. President Trump withdrew the US from the trade deal in January, indicating a shifting focus to bilateral rather than multilateral trade.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) on Monday confirmed that China would send a delegation led by Yin Hengmin, a special envoy for Latin America, to attend the meeting in Chile on Tuesday and Wednesday. Representatives from the 12 countries in the TPP as well as the US and South Korea will also be in attendance.

This will be the first time representatives from the TPP countries will meet since the Trump administration withdrew the US from the accord. Additionally, China's participation in the meeting has sparked speculation that China might join the accord, filling a big hole left by the US.

But "it is not a TPP meeting like some media said... on the TPP issue, China's stance has not changed," Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the MOFA, said at a press briefing on Monday, noting that the focus of the meeting will be on exchanging ideas of the future of regional cooperation in the Asia Pacific.

Caution needed 

The officials' comments on the TPP reflect the cautious attitude China has taken on decision-making on trade deals and not to be affected by "hyped talk of China replacing the US and becoming a leader in free trade," said Bai Ming, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation under the Chinese Ministry of Commerce.

"Though the US is retreating from multilateral systems, China still face obstacles from some countries or high expectations from others," Bai told the Global Times on Wednesday.

 "We have to wait and observe before deciding what's good for China," he said.

But China's support for economic globalization and free trade should not be disturbed by other countries' decisions, said Chen Fengying, an expert at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

"The reality that countries, including China, need economic interrogation has not changed just because the US decided to withdraw from the TPP or focus more on bilateral trade," Chen told the Global Times on Wednesday.

According to Chen, the outcome of the meeting in Chile would be "some kind of consensus" as to how to move forward in terms of economic integration in the Asia-Pacific region, and it is "unlikely" any decision will be made about TPP or the China-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

Bai said it is highly unlikely China will join the TPP, but that the country might achieve some success in completing RCEP negotiations.

Aside from the RCEP, China will also focus on other deals such as a free trade agreement between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and a trilateral deal among China, South Korea and Japan.

Beyond the Asia Pacific region, China is also working to protect economic globalization and trade liberalization through platforms such as One Belt and One Road initiative, Li said on Wednesday. China is also working to further open its economy to foreign business, he added.


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