US economic statecraft adrift as China seeks to join mega Asian trade deal

Large container ship in the open sea
Editor's note:

This op-ed was originally published by The Hill.

China’s decision to formally seek to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the world’s most important Asian trade deal, presents the U.S. with an enormous set of economic and diplomatic challenges. China joining CPTPP would deal a significant blow to U.S. economic statecraft and further strengthen Chinese leadership in the Indo-Pacific. Taiwan’s recent announcement that it also wants to join CPTPP further complicates the picture.

The CPTPP is what was left of the original U.S.-led 12 nation deal the Trans-pacific Partnership (TPP) that was a priority under Presidents Bush and Obama, but which President Trump pulled the U.S. out of in his first week in office.

Since the APEC CEO Summit in November last year, China had indicated its interest in joining CPTPP. Yet, this apparent interest was greeted with skepticism around China’s ability to undertake the economic reforms required to meet the high CPTPP standards, such as more competition for state-owned enterprises, freer flows of data across borders, and curbs on China’s industrial subsidies.

Yet, it is increasingly clear that China’s request to join CPTPP needs to be taken seriously and may happen sooner than expected. For one, China is the largest export market for nine of the current 11 CPTPP countries. Second, it may be less difficult than generally thought for China to meet many CPTPP standards. China could also lean into to the agreements broad exceptions to justify non-compliance. Where China has justified trade restrictions as being about national security, there is also a very broad national security carve out that China could rely on.

Second, in order for many developing countries such as Vietnam to join the agreement, full compliance with various rules needed to be delayed as these governments undertook domestic reforms. This sets the precedence for China to argue that where it is unable to meet CPTPP standards today, similar flexibilities should be extended to China and not delay it becoming a party to the agreement.

A key question for many governments will be whether they can be convinced of China’s eventual compliance with the CPTPP. The Australian trade minister when asked about China joining the CPTPP noted the need for China to demonstrate a track record of compliance with trade agreements. This speaks not only to China’s recent restrictions on Australia’s exports that are inconsistent with the China-Australia FTA, but also well-documented ways China has avoided its WTO commitments.

The announcement by the U.K. earlier this year of its interest to join the CPTPP likely hastened China’s decision to join. In part as U.K. membership in CPTPP would be another bulwark and hurdle to China joining, and it is harder for CPTPP governments to seriously negotiate U.K. accession, and to then not do the same for China. Taiwan’s request this week to also join the CPTPP will complicate the accession process, as China will oppose Taiwan joining as being at odds with its One-China policy.

So now the U.S. is faced with a flipped script—as China readies to join the CPTPP, it is left on the outside, still unsure how to show leadership on trade in the Indo-Pacific.

Should China succeed in joining CPTPP, this will foreclose the U.S. rejoining the agreement. The U.S. then having to negotiate with China to join the CPTPP is an irony that would be too much to bear. Indeed, re-engagement by the U.S. on trade in the Indo-Pacific region will require the U.S. to start the process again. However, after Trump’s withdrawal from CPTPP, getting other governments to agree to again make high standard trade commitments with the U.S. will be a big lift. In addition, with China party to CPTPP, the economic impact on China of a new U.S.-led trade agreement that excluded China would be significantly diminished. Indeed, China joining CPTPP will for the foreseeable future undercut the effectiveness of U.S. trade policy as a tool for achieving U.S. strategic goals with respect to China.

As President Biden made clear in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly this week, the U.S. needs to lead a collation of countries to counter China’s strategic challenges. To do this, the U.S. will need to continuously show up, lead and demonstrate consistency of purpose. This will require a renewed economic engagement strategy for the Indo-Pacific. The U.S. no longer has the luxury of spending precious political capital getting other countries to join a major international economic initiative like CPTPP and then decide to withdraw because it makes for good domestic politics. Leaving CPTPP was costly and China’s decision to join CPTPP has raised the stakes even higher.