China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

With RCEP Complete, China Eyes CPTPP

Is President Xi Jinping’s statement desire to join the CPTPP a signal of reconciliation to the new Biden administration or a bid to advance China’s regional dominance?

By Hemant Adlakha for
With RCEP Complete, China Eyes CPTPP
Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

Straight from celebrating the signing of the world’s largest trade pact, the 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), Chinese President Xi Jinping surprised everyone when he announced at the virtual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit five days later that China will actively consider joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade agreement.

Why is Beijing suddenly interested in joining a trade bloc that was initially pitched as anti-China? China’s state-controlled media has been very candid in stating that Beijing’s desire to join the CPTPP is strategically timed and aimed at a possible reconciliation with the United States under President-elect Biden. In a commentary released just a day after Xi made the announcement, the state-owned CCTV’s English language news and current affairs channel, CGTN, said: “With the incoming Biden administration now on the horizon, China has decided the ‘strategic time’ is now right to actively consider joining the CPTPP.”

CGTN acknowledged that the agreement, first orchestrated as the Trans-Pacific Partnership four years ago under the Obama administration, was framed as a trade counterweight to China. Now, however, CGTN pronounced the biggest takeaway from Xi’s interest in the CPTPP is that China is serious about expanding multilateral free trade and that, ultimately, does not view the trading system as a zero-sum game, as it has been depicted by the Trump administration.

On the other hand, a report on November 21 in the “hawkish” pro-establishment Global Times was far more forthcoming on the political motives. The Global Times’ story, entitled “China’s interest in CPTPP membership seen as a chance to ease Sino-U.S. tensions,” posited that Beijing is gauging the headwinds in Washington by signaling to the incoming Biden administration that China is ready to evolve away from the tense standoffs of the Trump era. Citing Wang Huiyao, the pro-U.S. and influential president of the Beijing-based Centre for China and Globalization, the Global Times article emphasized that unlike RCEP, the “CPTPP represents the world’s highest-level free trade agreement, and China’s interest in joining it shows the country’s desire and determination for deeper, higher-level opening up.”

Xi’s comments were not the first time China’s top leadership has expressed a desire to join the 11-country trade pact. In May of this year, Premier Li Keqiang became the first top-ranking Chinese leader to publicly confirm China’s interest in the CPTPP. At a press conference at the end of the 13th National People’s Congress, in reply to a specific question by the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun as to whether China had a plan to join, the Chinese premier said: “China has a positive and open attitude toward joining CPTPP.”

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Although Li’s remark was widely picked up by the international press, official Chinese media, including the Global Times, were conspicuously silent about the premier’s reply. However, the semi-official authoritative financial Caixin prominently headlined Li’s statement as “Premier Sends ‘Powerful’ Signal for China to Join Asia-Pacific’s Largest Trade Pact.”

Interestingly, the second influential Chinese figure to publicly advocate for China to join the CPTPP trade pact was none other than the senior financial commentator Hu Shuli, who is also the chief editor of Caixin. Charles Finny, an international trade expert and a senior official in New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, cited Hu’s comment in an article he wrote for the Auckland-based Asia Media Centre in July.

But not everyone outside China is willing to yet take at the face value what CGTN and the Global Times would want us to believe – that China’s keenness in joining the Asia Pacific trade pact “is a kind of ‘Chinese vow’ on promoting Asia-Pacific cooperation and globalization.” Earlier on, when Li first indicated in his low-key tone some interest in joining the CPTPP, skeptics outside of China had read Li’s remark as a slap in the face for the U.S., as both the Trump administration and the Democrats were generally opposed to Washington (re-)joining the trade pact. That was made apparent from the headline of one article published within days of Li’s remarks: “Trumping the U.S.; China could join CPTPP.” The author claimed that China’s membership in the CPTPP would also underline its growing position as the pre-eminent superpower in the West Pacific.

As the “repository” nation among the CPTPP members, New Zealand has denied receiving from China a formal expression of interest in joining the pact. This indicates that, riding on the success of the recent signing of RCEP, China is fully aware of the potential opponents to its entry among the CPTPP’s 11 member nations. For example, even if true that Japan’s newly elected Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide has clearly indicated interest in expanding CPTPP membership next year, when it is Japan’s turn to host the CPTPP leaders’ summit, it is not hidden from anyone that Japan is highly suspicious on trade matters. Remember, Japan has been negotiating a three-way free trade agreement with South Korea and China since 2002.

Besides, most of the Japanese business and political eliteis convinced that China will never join the CPTPP, at least not in the near future. Miyake Kuni, in a recent article in Japan Today, argued that by announcing China’s willingness to consider joining the CPTPP, Xi is indulging in pure propaganda. Miyake is a former career diplomat and currently serves as special adviser to Suga’s Cabinet. Miyake, critical of Beijing’s role in negotiating RCEP, feels that the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) might have been emboldened after RCEP to believe that China can join, change, and remake the rules of regional trade under a new TPP. “Based on my experience as Japan’s chief negotiator for trade in services at the World Trade Organization from 1994 to 1996, I don’t expect China to abide by the ordinary rules or regulations for joining the free trade agreement,” Miyaki opined.

Digging deeper into China’s real purpose behind indicating a desire to join CPTPP, a recent commentary in the Chinese-language version of the Financial Times claims that pushing for more globalization is Beijing’s latest mantra to tackle the U.S.-led China containment strategy. Written by Beijing-based scholar Cao Xin, secretary general of the International Opinion Research Center, Charhar Institute – an influential “liberal” think tank in Beijing – the article tried to explain China’s sudden interest in joining CPTPP, almost like a twin declaration following the RCEP, as exclusively aimed at the U.S. “China very well knows that developing closer economic and trade relations with other countries in the world is the most effective way to hit back at the ‘contain China’ policy being carried out by the United States and its allies,” Cao wrote.

Finally, in the two months before Biden the oath of office as U.S. president, China is going to be more and more aggressive in forging as many as multilateral and bilateral economic and trade agreements as possible. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently visited Seoul after spending two days in Tokyo, trying to expedite the signing of the China-Japan-South Korea FTA. Yesterday, Chinese Ambassador to Germany Wu Ken assured business leaders and political elites that Germany and the EU stand to gain momentum from China’s “dual circulation” policy as China pushes an end-of-year goal for the China-EU bilateral investment pact.

But even Cao’s special column in FT Chinese notes the reconciliatory mood toward Washington that is currently prevalent in Beijing. With the prospect of Biden moving into the White House next month, the CCP leadership, it seems, is working out a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, Beijing will seek to put the new U.S. administration under pressure from the very start by openly extending an olive branch. On the other hand, it will look to “encircle” the U.S. by developing economic and trade relationships with more and more countries that are American partners and allies.

Hemant Adlakha is a professor of Chinese at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University and an honorary fellow with the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.