China pushes for alternative Asian trade agreement

BEIJING • China hopes for "early results" in negotiations for a giant Asian trade pact, its foreign ministry said yesterday after United States President-elect Donald Trump vowed to ditch a rival deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Mr Trump pledged in a short video message to signal the US' withdrawal from the TPP - a vast, arduously negotiated agreement among 12 countries that does not include China - on his first day in the White House.

The TPP is the economic plank of outgoing US President Barack Obama's strategic rebalance to Asia, and the US' departure from the pact would render it toothless.

Analysts say the move could give Beijing - which backs the alternative Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) - an opportunity to forge ahead with its own trade deals and fill a vacuum left by any American withdrawal.

RCEP talks were pressing ahead, said foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, adding: "Now, we hope that such negotiations can achieve early results."

The RCEP brings together the 10 members of the South-east Asian grouping Asean plus China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, but notably excludes the US.

China hoped that trade agreements would "reinforce each other rather than undercut each other", Mr Geng said.

Shanghai University of International Business and Economics professor Bin Jiancheng told news agency Agence France-Presse that an American withdrawal from the TPP would "give China some opportunities and time to promote economic integration in Asia, including RCEP" and to expand its influence.

He noted that the Asian giant's major role in global commerce - it is the world's biggest trader in goods - would protect it from being isolated or threatened by the TPP, whether or not the US took part.

But it would still be hard to overtake the prominent global position of the US. "Even if the US really does not go through with TPP, it will still use other methods to maintain its leading role, and its ability to set rules in the Asia-Pacific region," Dr Bin said.

In a Chinese-language editorial yesterday, the Communist Party's top newspaper, People's Daily, said China-US relations were "too big to fail". It stressed the "special responsibilities" the pair had as the world's two largest economies.

"It's not difficult to foresee that China-US cooperation can bring huge benefits to both countries and the world, but if there is constantly friction between them or even confrontations, it will bring disaster" to all, it added.

The RCEP was a focus of attention at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru over the weekend. Mr Tan Jian, a senior member of China's delegation at the summit, said more countries are now seeking to join the 16-member bloc, including Peru and Chile.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 23, 2016, with the headline 'China pushes for alternative Asian trade agreement'. Print Edition | Subscribe