TOKYO – China on Thursday announced that it has officially applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, 300 days after President Xi Jinping first expressed its intention to do so.

But without a concrete prospect of being accepted, why has Beijing acted now?

Jia Qingguo, professor and former dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, told Nikkei in November 2020 that a Chinese candidacy would be a challenge for Japan because “refusing the request would mean a confrontation with China, but Japan cannot easily accept it either. because the United States would never agree to that. “

As a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Jia is deeply involved in shaping foreign policy.

Three days after the interview, Xi announced at a virtual summit for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum that China “would favorably consider joining” the CPTPP. Looking back, Jia’s comments to the Nikkei were likely based on the fact that such an announcement was coming.

Since then-President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the former Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017, China has considered joining the trade pact – which later became the CPTPP – and laid the groundwork . Beijing has spotted a golden opportunity to replace Washington as the primary voice in setting trade rules for the Asia-Pacific region.

Premier Li Keqiang first raised the idea of ​​China’s membership in May 2020. This came shortly after Xi’s scheduled state visit to Japan in April which was canceled due to of the pandemic. The trip to Japan was extremely important for Beijing amid deteriorating relations with Washington. China had refrained from expressing interest in the CPTPP until then, understanding that it would put Japan in an awkward position and give Tokyo an excuse to withdraw from Xi’s visit.

But with the trip canceled, China was free to act. Once Xi announced his interest in November, he was ready to apply at any time.

China does not expect to be admitted anytime soon, given the high standards the CPTPP demands of its members. But Thursday’s candidacy is inseparable from the “China containment” wall that Beijing is seeing rising.

On Wednesday, the United States, United Kingdom and Australia launched a new security group, AUKUS, with a particular focus on China. Washington and London will jointly offer technological support to Canberra for the construction of nuclear-powered submarines. On Thursday, the European Union presented its own “Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific”, citing the deepening of ties with Taiwan.

The CPTPP currently has 11 members, with the UK awaiting membership. From a purely economic point of view, adding the huge Chinese market to the free trade area would have a significant impact.

Some members may adopt the idea of ​​having China in the group. Such a scenario would be ideal for Beijing.

As Jia predicted, Japan is now in a tough spot. Refusing China at the gate would most certainly trigger severe denigration against Japan from the Xi administration. But any lenient stance would attract questions from Washington.

Driving a wedge in US-Japan relations, at the heart of the containment alliance with China, appears to be precisely the goal of the CPTPP request.

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