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China voices eagerness to contact 11 TPP member nations for entry

In this image from video released by APEC CEO Dialogues Malaysia 2020, China's President Xi Jinping, speaks at a CEO Dialogue forum via video link, ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders' summit, hosted by Malaysia, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Nov. 19, 2020. (APEC CEO Dialogues Malaysia 2020 via AP)

BEIJING (Kyodo) -- China expressed its eagerness on Monday to contact the 11 countries that make up the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as President Xi Jinping has recently pledged to positively consider joining the free trade pact.

    A possible expansion of membership will be "probably on the agenda" among the existing members, a senior Foreign Ministry official told reporters, voicing hope that China's participation in the pact will be approved in the near future.

    But the official, who is in charge of international economic affairs, added China does not have any timeframe for entry, amid expectations that its negotiations with member countries will not go smoothly over high-standard free trade rules called for in the pact.

    The TPP, formally known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, entered into force after President Donald Trump in 2017 withdrew the United States from the original TPP, which was widely seen as being aimed at countering China's growing economic influence.

    The existing TPP members are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

    China, which has criticized Trump as dividing the Asia-Pacific region by pursuing trade protectionist policies under his "America First" agenda, has been attempting to boost its clout in the region, foreign affairs experts say.

    During an online summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum on Friday, Xi made the headlines by saying the world's second-biggest economy will "give positive consideration" to the idea of taking part in the TPP.

    The Global Times, a tabloid affiliated with the ruling Communist Party, said Saturday that China's "bold decision to consider joining" the TPP comes "at a time when many countries are trying to shift away from the U.S.-initiated penchant for protectionism."

    The newspaper also said Chinese participation "could offer a huge opportunity" for its service and high-tech industries as well as digital economy.

    In reality, however, it is uncertain whether China would adhere to liberalized rules in the TPP, such as a ban on preferential treatment for state-owned enterprises, and stronger intellectual property rights protection, the experts say.

    Japanese economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura cautioned Saturday that a country needs to accept high-standard trade rules to start talks on possibly joining the TPP.

    "We have to strictly determine whether (Beijing) is ready to meet free and fair rules," Nishimura said at a press conference.

    Xi's remarks came just days after 15 Asia-Pacific countries including China, Japan and the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations signed the world's largest free trade deal -- the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

    APEC members see the TPP and RCEP as steps toward realizing a wider free trade pact called the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific. The United States has not joined RCEP, either.

    RCEP comprises the 10 ASEAN countries -- Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam -- plus Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.

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