China’s bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP, has nothing to do with the newly unveiled US-led AUKUS security pact, and should instead be seen as part of its longstanding commitment to multilateralism and free trade, experts said.

“It is a mistake to regard China’s application to CPTPP as a … ‘knee-jerk response’ to the AUKUS announcement,” said Lee Seong-Hyon, a visiting scholar of Harvard University's Fairbank Center.

He was referring to the new security partnership announced on Sept 15 by Australia, Britain and the United States, or AUKUS, under which Australia will build nuclear-powered submarines with technology from the other two countries.

Lee, a former director at the Center for Chinese Studies at the Sejong Institute, a think tank in South Korea, pointed out that Chinese President Xi Jinping had expressed Beijing’s interest in joining the CPTPP as far back as in November last year.

“That indicates China is moving along with a long-term strategy in mind,” he told China Daily.

China has officially filed an application to join the CPTPP, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce said in a statement on Sept 16.

The CPTPP is a trade agreement among 11 countries: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. It came into force in December 2018, with the members accounting for about 13 percent of global GDP.

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Echoing Lee’s view, Suthiphand Chirathivat, emeritus professor of economics and executive director of the ASEAN Studies Center at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, said China’s application, instead of a response to the AUKUS, is part of the country’s long-term thinking and strategic move to expand its role in the regional and global economy.

Noting that several countries from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc are members of both CPTPP and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, Suthiphand told China Daily that he expects the cooperation and integration between ASEAN and China, which are already each other’s biggest trading partners, will be further deepened.

Signed in November, the RCEP is a free trade pact between the ten-member ASEAN and five major trading partners — China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. It is the biggest free trade pact to date with countries involved accounting for about 30 percent of global GDP.

Nawazish Mirza, professor of finance at the Excelia Business School in France, said China’s move to join the trans-Pacific trade bloc aligns with the country’s long-term economic transformation strategy, given its sizeable contribution to global trade and focus on openness and multilateralism.

“If the Chinese application is approved, there will be multiple benefits,” said Mirza, citing prospects such as reduction in tariffs and non-tariff-related trade barriers, and better opportunities to address climate issues.

“There will be valuable contributions towards governance, intellectual property, cross-border investments, workforce standards, and regulatory cooperation if China becomes a signatory,” Mirza told China Daily.

Considering the sheer market size of China and the opportunities it presents, Manu Bhaskaran, chief executive of Centennial Asia Advisors, an economic consultancy in Singapore, said if China is included in the CPTTP, it will make the trade pact more attractive for other countries to join.

Yet Bhaskaran said the negotiations over China’s application could be long and complex as it will be difficult to accommodate the nation’s particular characteristics, such as its socialist market economy with a substantial role for government and State-owned enterprises.

“By applying to join the CPTPP, China hopes to show that it is a leader in global rule-setting, and that it is working constructively to advance the world trade agenda,” said Bart Edes, distinguished fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

“It also reinforces a consistent strategy of integrating more closely with Asian economies.”

While noting that China has shown willingness to pursue new trade liberalizations as part of negotiations to conclude the RCEP, Edes said the country may have to undertake further reforms to meet the standards of the CPTPP, which sets a higher bar on issues such as labor, SOEs, and digital commerce.

Echoing his view, Lee from Harvard University said there will be some demands placed on China before it is accepted by all current CPTPP members, a list that includes staunch US allies Japan and Australia.

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Meanwhile, he noted that “some opinion makers in the US are urging the Biden administration to join the CPTPP, ahead of China”.

Lee said applying to join the CPTPP will allow China to project itself as a proponent of multilateralism and free trade. “It is also symbolically important that China sent its application before the US would consider doing so.”

The CPTPP is also known as the TPP 11, since it evolved from the initial 12-member Trans-Pacific Partnership. The US was one of the proponents of the TPP under former president Barack Obama, but his successor Donald Trump pulled the country out of the treaty in 2017 as part of a push to put in place more protectionist measures to bolster domestic manufacturing and production.

Some regional countries have welcomed China’s CPTPP application.

In a statement to the Bernama news agency, Malaysia’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry said it is “encouraged” by China’s application for accession into the CPTPP.

“With the ongoing domestic efforts setting Malaysia right on track towards ratification, and the possible commencement of China’s accession negotiation with the CPTPP membership next year, MITI is confident that bilateral trade and investment ties between Malaysia and China will grow to greater heights in the near future,” it said.

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