Geopolitics behind opposition to China’s CPTPP bid
Published: Sep 21, 2021 09:00 PM
Illustration: Tang Tengfei/Global Times

Illustration: Tang Tengfei/Global Times

China's recent application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) has received a negative response from the US, which had originally pushed the free trade treaty as a way to exclude China during the Obama era before abruptly withdrawing from the deal in the early days of the Trump era.

Key US senators overseeing trade on Monday urged the Biden administration to ward off China's initial move to join the pact. In a joint statement, US Senator Tom Carper, Chairman of the Senate Finance Subcommittee on International Trade, Customs, and Global Competitiveness, and another ranking member John Cornyn suggested that China's step in this "troubling" direction could affect the US' economy and national security.

The call for the US to return to the CPTPP before China takes action has been around for a time. While some US politicians like Carper and Cornyn are expecting the Biden administration to step up efforts to assert itself in the Asia-Pacific region, the Biden administration continues to dodge questions about the deal. 

The US is actually not so keen on global or regional free trade agreements now, and the reason is clear: from Trump to the Biden administration, the US government is taking a US-centric approach in dealing with economic and trade issues. If the US decides to join any economic cooperation pact or trade agreement, the cooperation framework will most likely mean concessions from the US, rather than the US dictating the terms.

From the perspective of the domestic politics, if the Biden administration takes action to rejoin the CPTPP, it risks being punished at the ballot box next election time. Many voters in the US believe that a free trade treaty like the CPTPP will costs American jobs and lead to lower household incomes.

Even for politicians like Carper and Cornyn who advocate the US joining the CPTPP, their position is not based on mutually beneficial cooperation, but a geopolitical zero-sum game mindset. 

If US policymakers and lawmakers can't divorce themselves from this mindset, it is difficult for the US to achieve any mutually beneficial cooperation pacts that can benefit other countries and regions as well as itself at the same time. Even if an agreement can be reached, it would only be another exclusive geopolitical pact under economic cooperation guise.

In fact, the US' political influence still demonstrates in the mixed attitudes toward China's application among current members of CPTPP. While members like Singapore and Malaysia have welcomed China's application to join the pact, some other members like Australia and Japan have taken a more cautious approach.

For instance, Malaysia's Ministry of International Trade and Industry said it is "particularly encouraged with the recent move" by China's application to join the CPTPP. 

China's role in promoting economic and trade of regional countries in mutually beneficial economic cooperation has been easily felt by partners that are willing to abandon political gamesmanship when it comes to economic cooperation. It's no surprise that many economies in Asia-Pacific region support China joining the CPTPP after benefits have been brought by trade treaties like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

Admittedly, China still faces many challenges in joining CPTPP, including the opposition of some US allies. Australia reportedly said it opposed China's joining unless it convinced members it had a "track record of compliance" with international trade agreements. Such opposition is apparently not in economic consideration but a strategic consideration. 

While the US is still unable to make up its mind on whether to return to the CPTPP, it is obviously unwise for member states to set up artificial barriers for the entry of the world's second largest economy based on political considerations.

The author is professor at the Institute of International Relations of the China Foreign Affairs University.