The Trans-Pacific Partnership was originally pursued by the United States to improve trade relations with many countries in the Pacific region and as a counter to rising Chinese influence. See, e.g., New York Times, U.S. Allies See Trans-Pacific Partnership as a Check on China, October 5, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/07/world/asia/trans-pacific-partnership-china-australia.html.
After President Trump withdrew the United States from the Agreement at the beginning of his term in 2017, Japan pushed to conclude the agreement among the remaining eleven countries. The revised agreement, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific
Partnership, was signed in Santiago, Chile on 8 March 2018 and took effect 30 December 2018, with 8 of the eleven countries who signed now having ratified — Mexico, Japan, Singapore, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, Vietnam and Peru. That leaves Brunei, Chile and Malaysia as signatories who have yet to ratify the agreement.
With Brexit completed, the United Kingdom was the first non-CPTPP country to apply for membership. Its application filed on 1 February 2021 was accepted on 2 June 2021 with the first negotiations held on 28 September 2021. See Government of Canada, Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) – Joint Ministerial Statement on the occasion of the Fourth Commission Meeting, 2 June 2021, https://www.international.gc.ca/trade-commerce/trade-agreements-accords-commerciaux/agr-acc/cptpp-ptpgp/cptpp_meeting_four-ptpgp_declaration_quatre.aspx?lang=eng; Government of the United Kingdom, UK kickstarts talks to join £9 trillion global trade bloc, 28 September 2021, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-kickstarts-talks-to-join-9-trillion-global-trade-bloc. The U.K.’s application is also an extension of the range of countries potentially eligible for membership since the U.K. is not a Pacific bordering country.
In September, both China and Taiwan applied for membership. See, e.g., Ministry of Commerce, People’s Republic of China, China officially applies to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), September 18, 2021, http://english.mofcom.gov.cn/article/newsrelease/significantnews/202109/20210903201113.shtml; Nikkei Asia, Taiwan submits bid to join CPTPP trade pact, September 23, 2021, https://asia.nikkei.com/Economy/Trade/Taiwan-submits-bid-to-join-CPTPP-trade-pact; Wall Street Journal, China Seeks to Join Pacific Trade Pact After U.S. Forms New Security Alliance, September 16, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-seeks-to-join-pacific-trade-pact-after-u-s-forms-new-security-alliance-11631813201 .
China’s application, while facing hurdles because of challenges to complying with provisions on state owned enterprises, data flows and other issues, is also a major challenge to efforts of the U.S. to have a more important role in the Indo-Pacific region. Because China would more than double the size of the CPTPP if admitted and because of heightened tensions in the Indo-Pacific area in recent years, there has been a great deal written on China’s application.
Some articles have argued for CPTPP countries rejecting China’s application or the likely failure of China to join for substantive reasons. See CNBC, China will likely fail in its CPTPP bid — but it’s a ‘smart’ move against the U.S., say analysts, September 27, 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/09/27/analysts-on-chinas-bid-to-join-cptpp-strategic-competition-with-us.html (“Beijing needs the approval from all 11 CPTPP signatories to join CPTPP, and it may not succeed given its strained relationships with some member countries, said analysts.”); Bloomberg, Editorial Board, CPTPP Trade Block Shouldn’t Welcome China, September 22, 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2021-09-22/cptpp-trade-bloc-shouldn-t-welcome-china.
Others have noted the multiyear effort by China to study the TPP and resulting CPTPP and ongoing efforts to gain support from individual CPTPP members for their application. See Nikkei Asia, Analysis: China’s TPP bid follows carefully scripted 300-day plan, Beijing’s move aims to thwart possible U.S. return to pact, pressure Taiwan, September 23, 2021, https://asia.nikkei.com/Editor-s-Picks/China-up-close/Analysis-China-s-TPP-bid-follows-carefully-scripted-300-day-plan; Brookings, China moves to join the CPTPP, but don’t expect a fast pass, September 23, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2021/09/23/china-moves-to-join-the-cptpp-but-dont-expect-a-fast-pass/; Foreign Policy, Wendy Cutler, China Wants to Join the Trade Pact Once Designed to Counter It, September 21, 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/09/21/china-cptpp-trade-agreement/.
Others have focused on the importance of the U.S. reengaging economically in the region or risking losing to China. For example, Wendy Cutler, a former USTR lead negotiator for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, is the Executive Vice President of the Asia Society Policy Institute and has urged the last and current Administrations to stay economically engaged in Asia. See ASPI, Report, Reengaging the Asia-Pacific on Trade: A TPP Roadmap for the Next U.S. Administration, September 2020, https://asiasociety.org/sites/default/files/2020-09/A%20TPP%20Roadmap%20for%20the%20Next%20U.S.%20Administration.pdf. See also Nikkei Asia, Comment, Why U.S. membership in CPTPP makes more sense than ever, Washington risks being locked out and ceding Indo-Pacific influence to China, September 24, 2021, https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Comment/Why-U.S.-membership-in-CPTPP-makes-more-sense-than-ever; PIIE, Jeffrey Schott, China’s CPTPP bid puts Biden on the spot, September 23, 2021, https://www.piie.com/blogs/trade-and-investment-policy-watch/chinas-cptpp-bid-puts-biden-spot; Inside U.S. Trade’s World Trade Online, Citing China’s CPTPP bid, Carper and Cornyn urge U.S.
trade leadership, September 20, 2021, https://insidetrade.com/daily-news/citing-china%E2%80%99s-cptpp-bid-carper-and-cornyn-urge-us-trade-leadership; Wall Street Journal, Opinion/Comment by Tim Groser, The U.S. Has a Way Back on Pacific Trade, And if Washington doesn’t take it, the Indo-Pacific would likely become China’s for the taking, September 29, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/america-tpp-china-japan-indo-pacific-trade-influence-11632931688. New Zealand’s Former Trade and Environment Minister Tim Groser’s piece is particularly interesting and is copied below.
“It was February 2017 and President Trump’s first address to a joint session of Congress. I was on the floor of the U.S. House as a guest of a pro-trade Republican congressman. As the president announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, I was thinking about a conversation I’d had with a particularly astute Asian ambassador. He’d suggested to me that if a book on the decline of American influence in Asia and the Indo-Pacific were ever written—and he hoped it never would be—its first chapter would be an account of the withdrawal of the U.S. from TPP.
“Largely because of Japan’s courageous decision to proceed without the U.S., TPP survived. With some changes to a few of its provisions and a new moniker—Comprehensive and Progressive TPP, or CPTPP—it went ahead. Nothing would have been possible if Japan, by far the dominant remaining economy in the agreement, had decided differently.
“China’s decision this month to apply for CPTPP membership should be a sharp reminder to Republicans and Democrats alike that if the U.S. is serious about competing with China in the Indo-Pacific it must confront a central reality: Having withdrawn from the TPP, the U.S. doesn’t yet have a trade strategy to back up its military posture in the region. China is the principal trading partner of many countries in the Indo-Pacific. The size of China’s economy, as well as its military and geostrategic ambition, means that Beijing will be at the center of the debate over every regional and global issue in the 21st century, from climate change to trade. Its ability to influence the outcomes of those issues will be determined by the degree—and effectiveness—of U.S.
“We don’t yet know where the new policy script that the Chinese Communist Party is now writing will lead the world’s second-largest economy. When Deng Xiaoping 40 years ago shifted China toward growth and an open economy with his slogan ‘to be rich is glorious,’ it was the beginning of the largest poverty-reduction program in human history. Hundreds of millions of Chinese were lifted out of destitution, and huge opportunities opened up for China’s trading partners. Things have been moving backward lately, in the direction of greater centralization and state control. One could even mount an elegant argument that China itself needs balance from the full engagement of the U.S. in the region.
“The Chinese people have benefited enormously, not from ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy, but from Beijing’s positive engagement with the U.S.-designed liberal economic architecture. China’s future choices and trade strategies will be fundamentally different if they aren’t constrained by a muscular and successful U.S. economic strategy in the Indo-Pacific.
“Intriguingly, the U.S. is putting in place the elements of regional re-engagement. No foreign policy (or trade policy) is politically sustainable without a solid domestic constituency behind it. Trade has long been a tortured issue in American politics, particularly for Democrats, because economic change creates anxiety for the middle class. When people are under severe economic pressure, trade is always a potential scapegoat.
“In September 2020, the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace published a white paper titled ‘Making U.S. Foreign Policy Work Better for the Middle Class.’ Among the authors was Jake Sullivan, now President Biden’s national security adviser. The White House approach to assuaging traditional Democratic fears of trade-induced economic change seems clear: Shore up domestic policy before moving forward aggressively on any trade deals.
“The recent establishment of the Aukus security arrangement among the U.S., the U.K. and Australia can leave no doubt that the Biden administration views the Indo-Pacific as the most important theater of strategic competition with China. Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council’s coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, has made clear that U.S. strategy in the region must extend beyond a military plan to protect American allies from China’s expansionist ambitions. It needs an economic component.
“In my view, the U.S. is unlikely to rectify the mistake of leaving TPP by asking to join CPTPP. Mr. Biden has said he would oppose joining the original deal without a renegotiation. That alone would make it difficult for the U.S. to waltz back in. But it’s also true that the strategic environment has evolved. Large parts of TPP, such as its provisions on trade and the environment, remain relevant, but the past five years have sharpened the policy world’s understanding of such key issues as digital trade and state-owned enterprises. Plus, there is a new kid on the TPP block: the U.K. The world’s sixth-largest economy, a major intelligence and defense partner of the U.S., wants to join the club. The U.K.’s post-Brexit desire to expand its horizons beyond geographical Europe was the political subtext of the trade deal announced this summer between London and Canberra.
“Whatever next year’s congressional elections bring, active foreign-policy engagement always requires the involvement of both American political parties. The U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement, updating the North American Free Trade Agreement, passed easily with bipartisan support during the Trump administration. If the U.S. recommits to TPP, it should be rechristened the Indo-Pacific Economic Partnership Agreement. A new name might make it an easier sell politically.
“The regional stakes were high even before China’s aggressive move on Hong Kong, its saber-rattling in Taiwan, and its ramped-up trade war with Australia. We now need to hear American leaders on both sides of the aisle talking about re-engaging in the region, not only on the political and military levels, but on the trade and economic architecture that will shape economic relations over the next decade and beyond. Only then will my friend the astute Asian ambassador be able to rest easy, secure in the knowledge that the decline of American influence in the Indo-Pacific is a book that will never be written.
“Mr. Groser served as New Zealand’s trade minister (2008–15) and ambassador to the U.S. (2016–18).“
The interest in the CPTPP will be heightened for other countries who are not members or who are already considering joining CPTPP and will be the subject of programs to explore the politics and business implications. See, e.g., Inside U.S. Trade’s World Trade Online, Eyes on Asia: Thailand re-evaluates CPTPP, Peru brings pact into force, September 22, 2021, https://insidetrade.com/trade/eyes-asia-thailand-re-evaluates-cptpp-peru-brings-pact-force; Business Korea, South Korea Planning to Join CPTPP, January 12, 2021, http://www.businesskorea.co.kr/news/articleView.html?idxno=58283; Nikkei Asia, Philippines explores joining TPP to expand free trade network, April 2, 2021, https://asia.nikkei.com/Economy/Trade/Philippines-explores-joining-TPP-to-expand-free-trade-network; The Global Business Dialogue, Inc., CPTPP: PEFORMANCE, PROMISE AND OUTLOOK, October 5 and 7, 2021, https://www.gbdinc.org/.
Likely U.S. Trade Approach Short Term
Despite the groups calling for the U.S. to reengage with the CPTPP countries and the obvious growing importance of the CPTPP for Indo-Pacific trade relations, most analysts believe the United States will not seek to either renegotiate the CPTPP or to join the CPTPP as it is in the near future. While the U.S. has free trade agreements with many of the CPTPP countries (Canada, Mexico, Australia, Singapore, Peru and Chile), with the exception of Canada and Mexico who are party to the USMCA, other FTAs are older and not as comprehensive or addressing all the issues as the CPTPP.
The United States under the Trump Administration and now under the Biden Administration has sought selective trade improvements with some Indo-Pacific countries, including Japan (Phase I deal under the Trump Administration), resolution of 301 disputes on currency and lumber with Vietnam (resolution by the Biden Administration) and bilateral activity with other Asian countries including India, Japan and Australia as members of the Quad. See, e.g., White House Briefing Room, U.S.-India Joint Leaders’ Statement: A Partnership for Global Good, September 24, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/09/24/u-s-india-joint-leaders-statement-a-partnership-for-global-good/; White House Briefing Room, Joint Statement from Quad Leaders, September 24, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/09/24/joint-statement-from-quad-leaders/; White House Briefing Room, Quad Principles on Technology Design, Development, Governance, and Use, September 24, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/09/24/quad-principles-on-technology-design-development-governance-and-use/. These types of initiatives include trade related elements such as supply chain resiliency in areas like semiconductors and pharmaceuticals and other medical products needed to address the COVID-19 pandemic as well as on technical barriers to trade issues flowing from technology developments. And, of course, the U.S. engages with other countries in the region even if there are no specific trade negotiations. See, e.g., USTR, Readout Of Ambassador Katherine Tai’s Meeting with ASEAN Economic Ministers, September 14, 2021, https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/press-releases/2021/september/readout-ambassador-katherine-tais-meeting-asean-economic-ministers.
But these efforts to date don’t ensure U.S. access to many of these markets on the best possible terms for some products and services or ensure the highest standards of the agreements going forward.
China may or may not be accepted into the CPTPP now that it has applied or may decide that the requirements won’t work for its vision of its economy. While the U.S. is seeking cooperation from trading partners at the WTO and in various alliances to deal with some of the major challenges posed by China’s failure to convert its economy to a market economy and to address some of the coercion and failures to comply with bilateral, plurilateral and multilateral commitments, a strong trade agenda and participating in the rule development within important regional groupings would obviously improve the likelihood of improved balance in international trade relations.
That said, the Biden Administration has been reviewing its trade relationship with China, looking to develop a whole of government approach to China.
USTR’s October 4, 2021 articulation of U.S. approach to trade with China
USTR had signaled last week that Amb. Tai would be making a major speech today. The speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies was at 10 a.m. (ET) this morning. See Office of the United States Trade Representative, Remarks As Prepared for Delivery of Ambassador Katherine Tai Outlining the Biden-Harris Administration’s “New Approach to the U.S.-China Trade Relationship,” October 4, 2021, https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/press-releases/2021/october/remarks-prepared-delivery-ambassador-katherine-tai-outlining-biden-harris-administrations-new. The Administration also released a fact sheet on the Administration’s policy. See Office of the United States Trade Representative, Fact Sheet: The Biden-Harris Administration’s New Approach to the U.S. – China Trade Relationship, October 4, 2021, https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/press-releases/2021/october/fact-sheet-biden-harris-administrations-new-approach-us-china-trade-relationship. The fact sheet lists four “initial steps” the U.S. is taking. Those steps as described in the fact sheet are reproduced below.
“Today, we are announcing the initial steps we will take to re-align our trade policies towards the PRC around OUR priorities:
“• First, we will discuss with China its performance under the Phase One Agreement. China made commitments that do benefit certain American industries, including agriculture that we must enforce. President Biden will continue to promote our economic interests – and build confidence for American industry.
“• Second, while pursuing Phase One enforcement, we will restart our domestic tariff exclusions process to mitigate the effects of certain Section 301 tariffs that have not generated any strategic benefits and raised costs on Americans. We will ensure current Section 301 tariffs align appropriately with our economic priorities like boosting American workers’ wages and job opportunities, securing the resilience of critical supply chains, sustaining our technological edge, and protecting our national security interests.
“• Third, we continue to have serious concerns with the PRC that were not addressed in the Phase One deal, specifically related to its state-centered and non-market trade practices including Beijing’s non-market policies and practices that distort competition by propping up state-owned enterprises, limiting market access, and other coercive and predatory practices in trade and technology.
“Even as we work to enforce the terms of Phase One, we will raise our broader concerns with Beijing’s non-market policies and practices like abuse of state-owned enterprises, anti-competitive behavior and subsidies, the theft of American intellectual property directly and in coordination with our allies and partners. We will defend American economic interests using the full range of tools we have and by developing new tools as needed.
“• And lastly, we know that we cannot do it alone. We will continue consulting and coordinating with allies and partners who share our strong interest in ensuring that the terms of competition are fair, work collectively to set the rules of the road for trade and technology in the 21st century, and strengthen the global market for our workers and businesses.
“This work with our allies and partners is already bearing fruit, as evidenced by efforts at the G7, the US-EU Summit, the Quad, the OECD, and the TTC. The Boeing-Airbus deal struck in June of this year is just one example of how this commitment to work with our allies creates more opportunity to sell American products. We will accelerate this progress and look forward to continuing the conversations with our likeminded allies and partners about the impact the PRC’s non-market practices have on them, and how we can work together to find solutions.”
China’s Phase 1 commitments have been met is some areas but widely missed in terms of expanded purchases, particularly on manufactured goods and energy. China’s performance on agricultural goods has been significantly better and close to commitments. There are also large volumes of U.S. exports that are not covered by the Phase I Agreement where China has sharply reduced purchases in 202-2021 despite China’s economic performance. See PIIE, US-China phase one tracker: China’s purchases of US goods, As of August 2021, September 27, 2021, https://www.piie.com/research/piie-charts/us-china-phase-one-tracker-chinas-purchases-us-goods. Thus, it will be interesting to see if outreach to China on the need for ramped up improvements will have any effect in fact.
American businesses have long complained about the tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of imports from China that resulted from the 301 investigation on China’s IP and other practices. Businesses viewed USTR’s exclusion process as an ineffective system for seeking exclusions and felt the process ended up penalizing U.S. companies. Congress has applied pressure on the Biden Administration (as it did on the Trump Administration) to restart and improve the exclusion process. Former USTR Lighthizer criticized some of the legislative efforts to weaken Section 301, require a revised exclusion process and renew certain tariff waiver programs that he viewed as significantly advantaging China. See New York Times, Opinion/Guest Essay (Robert Lighthizer), America Shouldn’t Compete Against China With One Arm Tied Behind Its Back, July 27, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/27/opinion/us-china-trade-tariffs.html. While the Biden team identifies actions which could reduce the loss of effectiveness of the 301 tariffs on China, time will tell how well step two of the new approach works in fact.
Press reports indicate that the U.S. will be raising the host of trade problems not addressed in the Phase I Agreement with China but will not be engaged in a Phase II Agreement negotiation. See Inside U.S. Trade’s World Trade Online, U.S. to renew China talks, restart tariff product exclusions, October 4, 2021, https://insidetrade.com/daily-news/us-renew-china-talks-restart-tariff-product-exclusions (“But the administration is not looking to negotiate a phase-two deal, senior administration officials told reporters on Sunday. ‘We’ll focus on phase-one engagement, we will raise concerns on industrial policies, but we are not seeking a phase-two negotiation,’ one said.”).
That said, the U.S. has been pursuing reforms at the WTO on industrial subsidies and other matters along with some major trading partners (e.g., Japan and the EU on industrial subsidies). While reforms are not likely at the WTO any time soon on industrial subsidies, the U.S. is attempting to apply pressure in a number of fora on China’s policies. Thus, the U.S. is actively pursuing alliances to achieve reforms in China’s policies and distortive practices.
In short, today’s announced trade policy to address China appears to be less confrontational than the actions of the Trump Administration while maintaining for the time being the tariffs that were added following the 301 investigation in 2017-2018. While working to get better compliance with the Phase I Agreement is a positive, many provisions were adopted by China based on prior Administration statements. It will be important to know if these granular provisions once adopted have actually been implemented and whether U.S. trade has benefitted as a result. While the purchase commitments other than agriculture have been widely missed (including some commitments by sectors with heavy state ownership, such as energy), there are specific commitments for 17 goods categories only for 2020 and 2021 and some language about continued growth in the future, it is not clear how aggressive the U.S. will be in pursuing compliance in the last three months of 2021 and moving forward. The same is true in services where the pandemic has undoubtedly contributed to declines in U.S. services exports and the dismal performance compared to commitments. It is also not clear if the U.S. will address the sharp contraction of U.S. exports of products not covered by the Phase I purchase commitments. Such contractions in a period of economic growth by China seem likely driven by Chinese action whether formal or informal to reduce U.S. exports regardless of China’s overall growth.
The serious problems China’s economic model and policies are causing the U.S. and other market economies will be difficult to correct simply through discussions. The Biden’s Administration’s focus on domestic policies and reinvesting in infrastructure, R&D and workers is certainly long overdue (if Congress passes funding), The Biden Administration clearly needs China engaged to address the climate crisis and a number of other global issues. This reality may have contributed to the level of action envisioned on trade relations with China. But today’s announced trade policy towards China seems uninspired and unlikely to make a significant difference in rebalancing trade relations.
Coupled with U.S. reluctance to identify a trade policy agenda that can be used with trading partners to generate new agreements and revise existing agreements, the U.S. approach to China raises the specter of a lost opportunity. Let’s hope that concern proves incorrect.