By Watanabe Yorizumi, professor of international politics and economy at the Kansai University of International Studies
On Sept. 16, China officially applied to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade accord. Japan has a security alliance with the U.S. and a close economic relationship with China. Many commentators say Japan is in a quandary due to the conflict between Washington and Beijing and is “agonizing over how to respond” to China’s bid to join the TPP. But I think this is a good opportunity for Japan to show its real skill in trade diplomacy.
Japan saved the TPP from collapse after the U.S. left the pact in January 2017. Japan was highly praised for its negotiation skills after it successfully salvaged the pact by persuading reluctant Vietnam and Malaysia to join.
Japan is in a position where it can use its negotiation skills to urge China to fully comply with the existing rules with no alteration to them. Taking an uncompromising stance, Japan should negotiate with China on regulations on state-owned enterprises and transparency and fairness of data flows, two areas that are hard for China.
Many in Japan are worried about the reaction of the U.S. But any U.S. suspicion can be dispelled if Japan takes an adamant stance in its negotiations with China. Japan should make it clear to the U.S. that it is “negotiating with China on behalf of the U.S.”
What is important in negotiations is the power relationship, and Japan is a TPP member and China is merely an aspirant. The two countries are not on an equal footing. China has no choice but to accept the rules set by the member nations or to abandon its bid and leave the negotiating table. As a country seeking membership, China will not and should not change the TPP’s current rules.
China decided to apply for TPP membership knowing that the U.S. administration under President Joe Biden is unlikely to return to the TPP soon. This indicates China’s farsightedness. Even if TPP negotiations with China begin, they will not end in a short time frame of two to three years.
The U.S. will certainly make a move after the midterm elections scheduled for next autumn. If it wanted to, the U.S. could return to the TPP, which it agreed to in 2015 for a time, before negotiations on China’s TPP bid begin. As a prior TPP member, the U.S. would be able to participate in the negotiations on Chinese membership.
On Sept. 22, Taiwan also applied to join the TPP. As the issue of semiconductors shows, Taiwan is also important to Japan. Both China and Taiwan are pinning their hopes on Japan’s economic diplomacy.