TOKYO - Members of a landmark 11-nation Pacific Rim trade deal signalled their openness to expand the agreement by taking in new members, after meeting for the first time since the pact came into force on Dec 30.
Following a meeting in Tokyo, Japan, on Saturday (Jan 19), participating countries to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) highlighted in a joint statement the importance of maintaining and strengthening the principles of an open, inclusive and rules-based trading system.
This comes amid growing concerns over recent trends towards protectionism, they added, reiterating that the agreement is "open to all economies" which accept these principles and are willing to meet its high standards.
They then "confirmed their strong determination to expand the agreement through the accession of... new economies".
Negotiated and signed on March 8 last year, the CPTPP is a revived version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), following the United States' withdrawal. It brings together economies from both sides of the Pacific, representing 14 per cent of the global economy.
For now, seven nations - Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Singapore and Vietnam - have ratified the deal. The other countries involved are Brunei, Chile, Malaysia and Peru.
On Saturday, members of the CPTPP expressed their commitment to fully implement the agreement, which they noted "sends a strong signal in support of free trade" and puts in place "high-standard and well-balanced rules suitable for the 21st century".
Ministers also welcomed seven signatories' early ratification and implementation, expressing their hope that the agreement will enter into force for all at the earliest possible date.
But the joint statement also recognised that Malaysia is "still evaluating the agreement and its decision concerning its ratification".
On Thursday, Malaysian Minister of International Trade and Industry Darell Leiking said that Putrajaya will not rush into ratifying the CPTPP.
While there is "nothing really to stop Malaysia" from doing so, he told Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post that the pact was signed before the Pakatan Harapan government came into power last May, and the current government wants to ensure the terms are fair to the country.
Speaking to the media after the meeting, Singapore Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said that in order to bring new members to the CPTPP, the existing agreement has to be implemented "smoothly and expeditiously", which will assure interested parties that they can come on board without difficulty. One of the potential countries mentioned was Thailand, he added.
Other factors to consider is how the agreement takes shape, such as whether it is "static" or "progressive", meaning it keeps pace with the times and is likelier to attract more participants, he said.
On the process of admitting new members, Mr Chan also noted: "We run a very transparent process... anyone who can meet the high standards of the agreement, anyone who can adhere to it, will be welcome to join."
He also stressed the importance of the deal, as Singapore's economy can be integrated with a "much bigger market", and businesses can source products from more countries at more competitive prices, on top of having a larger market to sell to.
Other benefits of this integration include a "diversification of risk", meaning Singapore is not beholden to how any particular market performs.
In a speech earlier at the meeting, Mr Chan said: "The entry of new parties... is crucial. Expansion would accelerate and deepen regional economic integration; as well as anchor the CPTPP as one of the pathways towards the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific."
Other potential new entrants include South Korea, Indonesia and Britain as well. While Taiwan is said to be keen, some believe this will be difficult, with its diplomatic stand-off with China having kept it out of many multilateral organisations.
Trade experts and Asian diplomats suggested earlier this month also that the US and China are highly unlikely to join the line of economies interested in being part of the CPTPP.
The CPTPP was led by Japan to fruition and came into force on Dec 30, 2018, after years of bumpy talks and bringing steep tariff cuts to countries that have ratified the pact.
It retains all but 22 of the more than 1,000 provisions in the original TPP that had to be renegotiated after the US pulled out in January 2017, and the 583-page trade deal document covers areas such as market access for goods and services and e-commerce.
In a statement on Saturday, Singapore's Ministry of Trade and Industry said the first commission meeting marks the start of parties' next phase of work, including ratification by all, as well as the smooth implementation and expansion of the agreement.