Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has reiterated that parts of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal are still worth salvaging despite the United States’ withdrawal last month, with Australia to continue pushing for a revised deal during a meeting in March with the remaining TPP members in Chile.
“While Australia is disappointed by the decision of the United States to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, we are continuing to talk to the other signatories, including Canada, about how we can use the work that has been done to capture the TPP’s enormous economic and strategic benefits,” Turnbull told the Australia-Canada Economic Leadership Forum in Sydney on Tuesday morning.
Canada has previously said that the TPP cannot legally progress without US involvement, because of the way the trade deal was framed.
“This agreement was so constructed that it can only enter into force with the United States as a ratifying country,” Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said in January.
“So the TPP as a deal cannot happen without the United States being a party to it.”
Canada is also a member of the trilateral North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump has said will be renegotiated under the threat of the US withdrawing if Canada and Mexico refuse to negotiate on terms that give “American workers a fair deal”.
Australia has been in talks with New Zealand, Mexico, Japan, Singapore, and Malaysia on salvaging the TPP, with Turnbull previously suggesting that it could possibly be opened up to China in the absence of the US.
However, the Chinese government expressed unwillingness to join the TPP earlier this month, instead favouring its Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) deal.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said during his meeting with Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop that China’s goal is to form an Asia-Pacific free trade area through the RCEP pathway, which he suggested is less rigid and more inclusive than the TPP.
“It [a free trade agreement] should fully accommodate the level of comfort of all parties, and reflect the different levels of development of different countries,” Wang said through an interpreter.
“Maybe one path is not working for the moment, but there are other pathways.”
China was not included in the original TPP deal, which was signed in February 2016 by the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan, Mexico, Peru, Brunei, and Chile.
The TPP was dumped by US President Donald Trump on his first week in office, however, and with US withdrawal, it cannot come into force; it was negotiated under the condition that a minimum of six countries with a combined GDP of 85 percent of the 12 signatories must ratify it.
As the US accounts for 60 percent of the combined GDP, the TPP cannot come into effect without either changes being made to the conditions — or another large economy, such as China, taking the US’ place.
The US’ withdrawal occurred in spite of repeated warnings that Trump risked “abdicating” trade leadership in the Asia-Pacific region by refusing to ratify it, as this would create an opportunity for China to step in with its RCEP deal.
At least half of the nations involved in the TPP have followed the US’ decision by saying they will instead consider Chinese-led multilateral trade deals, such as the RCEP.
New Zealand, Singapore, Chile, Australia, Peru, and Malaysia have all signalled continued conversations and negotiations with the remaining TPP nations to consider ratification, as well as examining RCEP or other trade deals with China.
The RCEP is currently being negotiated between China, Australia, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Thailand.
Earlier this month, the Australian Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee recommended that Australia undertake further negotiations with its “major trading partners” prior to taking any binding treaty action on the TPP, with an additional recommendation that the government also reforms its treaty-making process.
“The committee’s view is the Australian government should defer any binding treaty action in relation to the TPP and focus on engaging with its trading partners to negotiate multilateral, regional, or bilateral trade agreements which are in Australia’s interests and can be agreed and implemented in a timely manner,” the committee said.
The Senate report also pointed to several “troubling aspects” of the TPP, including provisions that would have the effect of locking in Australia’s intellectual property regime — following concerns from Australia’s copyright industry — and “ambiguity” in the data protection provisions, as well as a lack of independent economic analysis.