OUT OF THE QUESTION: CHINA’S APPPLICATION FOR TPP MEMBERSHIP
On September 15 the US, the United Kingdom, and Australia announced AUKUS, a historic security framework in the Asia-Pacific under which Australia will receive technology to build its first nuclear-powered submarines.
The new setup led Australia to immediately cancel a multi-billion dollar contract signed with French Shipbuilder Naval Group in 2016 to build 12 conventional (diesel engine) attack submarines. Embracing the world’s second most expansive EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone), Australia badly needs powerful submarines to cope with the threat of China. Cost overruns and production delays were cited as the main reasons for the cancellation in the western Pacific Ocean. In point of fact, the costs had ballooned to nearly twice the original tab—from US$36 billion to US$65 billion—much to the dissatisfaction of the Australian government.
Japan Self-Defense Forces officials say they don’t understand why a dozen conventional submarines cost that much, but at the same time it would seem understandable why the French president was so infuriated he recalled his ambassadors from Washington and Canberra. France must bear a deep grudge for having had such a big business deal wrested away by the US in addition to having been kept in the dark until the last minute. While the transfer of nuclear submarine technology to Australia is a justifiable countermeasure against the threat of China, one should never forget the involvement of big money as an inevitable aspect of international politics.
There has been a wide range of reaction from India. While some Indians have lauded Australia for its decision, others have reacted critically to the US, asking why the US has given only Australia preferential treatment. After all, India is a member of QUAD, the four-nation security framework in the Indo-Pacific, and has for years requested to no avail that the US provide it nuclear submarines and F-35 Stealth Fighters. There is a whirlwind of frustration among Indians who feel the US has not treated their nation in the same way as it has Australia.
Most strategists agree that India may face a serious crisis as a result of the Taliban, Pakistan, and China strengthening their unity following America’s abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan. This view, coupled with the recent Australian incident, has further deepened India’s mistrust of America.
Tightening its guard against AUKUS more acutely than any other nation, China announced on September 16 that it had submitted a formal application to join the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) free trade pact.
Far Worse Than Before
In a September 23 editorial, The Wall Street Journal noted that the TPP not only seeks to address trade and economic issues but “the strategic balance in the world’s most significant economic region.” From this point of view, the Journal urges the US to rejoin the TPP, stating: “The Biden administration could build on its AUKUS success by moving toward a U.S. re-entry into the trading pact, which would do more to advance American interests in the Pacific than any arms sales.”
As can be seen in the birth of AUKUS, new international strategic frameworks will be employed by both the US and China in their struggle for values and leadership in a new world order. We must therefore view these frameworks from a variety of perspectives, including economic and military. Japan, as the TPP’s chair nation this year, must cautiously assess China’s application for TPP membership from all angles. I wish to stress here once again that, as AUKUS has economic implications beyond its military alliance, so does the TPP have balance of power implications beyond its core mission of fostering trade.
A week after China submitted its application for TPP membership, Taiwan quickly followed suit. Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said in New York, “Japan welcomes Taiwan’s application. We will respond to the application based on a strategic point of view and with the public’s understanding.” Motegi’s remarks contrasted sharply to what he had earlier said regarding China’s application, in which he carefully avoided the use of “welcome.” But I must admit I was appalled by some of the remarks I found in the Japanese press. For instance, the influential economic journal Nihon Keizai Shimbun said in its September 24 morning edition: “A simultaneous entry by China and Taiwan would be one possibility.”
Called the “Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership” at the outset, the TPP was positioned by democratic nations in the Pacific as a strategy to confront China’s self-serving actions, actions that run counter to the standards of international law and behavior. It was based on an international consensus that China should not be allowed to treat state-owned corporations preferentially, drive minorities, including Muslim Uyghers, to hard labor, or steal state-of-the-art technology from corporations.
Has China under Xi Jing-pin transformed itself into a nation that accommodates international norms, no matter how little? It has not. In fact, it has actually become far worse than before. That is why the TPP cannot welcome China as it is today.
How then are we to address China’s application? First of all, member nations must not forget that the free trade pact was created in order to counter the actions of countries like China, which habitually violate international law. We must freshly recognize the TPP’s founding purpose.
Secondly, we must preserve the standards the TPP demands in deciding whether to open negotiations with an applicant nation. Professor Masahiko Hosokawa, a former bureaucrat who now teaches international business at Meisei University in Nagoya, central Japan, has this to say:
“When we decided to start negotiating with the UK in June, we demanded that the process by which the UK would meet all existing TPP rules be clearly demonstrated. That should become the role model for all future negotiations.”
China’s False Promises to WTO
It should not be enough for the applicant nation to verbally pledge allegiance to TPP rules. It must further demonstrate concretely by when and how it plans to revise domestic laws and make improvements should they run counter to TPP values, such as suppressing minorities, and verify the “improvements” in order to abide by the TPP rules.
Fortunately, the negotiations with the UK began in June. The case of the UK’s application can be applied directly to the Chinese application. Negotiations can start only after China fully agrees to what the UK has agreed in applying for membership.
The world should not forget how China managed to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001: it craftily curried favor with the US and tricked it into backing its entry into the world body. Then Premier Zhu Rong-ji, who paid an official visit to the US in April 1999, made many promises as he enchanted a host of Americans with flowery and moving addresses in five big cities, including Los Angeles, New York, and Washington. Today, nearly 20 years after China entered the WTO, virtually none of these promises has yet to be fulfilled.
It’s time for Japan, which plays a central role in the TPP, to embrace its responsibilities on this issue. It should not let the TPP readily enter into negotiations with China. Prior to that, Japan must see to it that China pledges to stringently honor all TPP rules in order to ensure that those pledges do not become the false promises made to the WTO. Japan must demand, gently but resolutely, that China concretely demonstrate how it plans to revise domestic laws in order to honor TPP rules. Without this process, membership negotiations with China must not be implemented.
Japan must first pave the way for the UK’s entry, and then start negotiating with Taiwan, which is much better prepared for the TPP than China, to realize its early entry. In the meantime, Japan and the rest of the TPP members should not neglect their efforts to call the US back to the free trading pact.
The US stance toward China has undergone a sea change since 2017, when former President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the TPP. As the WSJ editorial emphasizes, “Sold properly, a renewed TPP might have a bipartisan fighting chance.” One should not take the gloomy view that the US will never return to the TPP. It is the privilege and responsibility of Japan, which played the key role after America’s withdrawal in bringing the TPP negotiations to a conclusion in 2017, to help the TPP to function according to its original purposes. A strong conviction and tenacious optimism will be needed to achieve those ends, but I am confident that Japan is more than capable of accomplishing this.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 969 in the October 7, 2021 issue of The Weekly Shincho)