South Korea President Moon Jae-in shows interest in joining CPTPP mega trade deal

South Korean President Moon Jae-in emphasised the importance of diversifying its export market to drive growth in the pandemic-hit economy. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Tuesday (Dec 8) mooted the idea of his country entering the revised Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, joining China in expressing interest in a pact that Japan is credited for leading to fruition.

He discussed the idea at a trade-related ceremony, emphasising the importance of diversifying its export market to drive growth in the pandemic-hit economy.

South Korea's Yonhap News Agency said this was the first time Mr Moon had publicly discussed the idea, though the Nikkei also noted that Mr Moon's predecessor Park Geun-hye had shown interest in the deal as early as in 2013.

"Diversifying the market is a task that (we) should achieve," he said, adding that his government will "continue to review joining" the pact known formally as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

He stressed that the "strongest weapon" against protectionism was global competitiveness in producing good products.

The 11-nation CPTPP, which comprises Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam, covers 500 million people and 13 per cent of the global economy.

Former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe has been credited for leading the deal to completion after the pull-out by United States President Donald Trump. The deal is now in effect, having been ratified by seven signatories.

It has far more stringent terms in areas such as market access and intellectual property than the 15-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) deal that was signed last month, comprising the 10 Asean states as well as Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. The bloc covers 30 per cent of the global economy.

This is why there has been healthy scepticism over the viability of China joining the CPTPP.

Chinese President Xi Jinping had said at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit last month that the grouping "must continue to promote regional economic integration and establish an Asia-Pacific free trade zone at an early date". He added that China "will actively consider joining" the CPTPP.

But Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said that while Tokyo welcomes the interest, this needs further assessment according to the pact's rules.

Keio University economist Fukunari Kimura thinks the barriers are high for China to join the CPTPP, and that many exceptions might have to be made to allow its participation.

He told a webinar on free trade for foreign journalists in Tokyo: "Generally speaking, for China to comply with the requirements under the CPTTP, it will have to undertake domestic reforms that are extremely difficult."

These areas include market access through the elimination of tariffs and the liberalisation of service investments, as well as rules governing e-commerce and state-owned enterprises, he added.

At the same time, he doubts there will be an immediate return to the pact by the US under President-elect Joe Biden, given that any such plan will be politically difficult.

Meanwhile, others, including Taiwan, Thailand and Britain, have also previously expressed their interest in joining the CPTPP.

Dr Kimura said that CPTPP member states will see benefits in South Korea - the ninth-largest economy in the world, according to forecasts this year - joining the deal given that "its inclusion will further reinforce the coalition of middle powers".

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