South Korea is hastening work to apply to join a regional trade bloc called the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership.
It plans to hold a meeting of external economy-related ministers early next month to make a formal decision to pursue CPTPP membership. The meeting was scheduled to be held Monday, but has been postponed due to the need to coordinate on differences among government agencies.
Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki, who doubles as deputy prime minister for economic affairs, recently said that Seoul was running out of time and had to decide sooner than later whether to join the trade pact grouping 11 Pacific Rim countries.
Negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, the precursor to the CPTPP, were concluded in 2015 at the initiative of then-US President Barack Obama’s administration. After Obama’s successor Donald Trump withdrew the US from the accord shortly after he took office in 2017, Japan led the other remaining members to launch the CPTPP two years later.
Over the past years, Korea had remained reluctant to participate in the trade framework for the Pacific Basin.
It has put priority on pushing for a trilateral trade deal with China and Japan, and launching the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement, which involves the three Northeast Asian economic powerhouses, Australia, New Zealand and the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The RCEP accord was signed by the participants in November last year.
Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the TPP made South Korea less interested in entering the Japan-led trade pact.
Seoul also apparently took into account ties with Beijing in taking a passive position on being a member of the TPP, which pointedly excludes China. The Obama administration initiated the creation of the trade zone as part of efforts to counterbalance China’s growing economic influence.
What has led Seoul to get a sense of urgency are recent moves by China and Taiwan toward entering the CPTPP and the prospect of the US rejoining the trade accord.
At a virtual regional summit days after the signing of the RCEP, Chinese President Xi Jinping said his country would give favorable consideration to joining the CPTPP. Last month, Beijing formalized its bid for the membership of the trade accord.
Taiwan immediately followed suit out of concerns that it would be shut out from the trade framework after China’s entry.
Beijing’s move is expected to prompt the US to be more active in returning to the CPTPP. Trump’s successor Joe Biden has pledged to ensure that the US will continue to play a key role in writing regional and global trade rules and will not leave the work to China.
Seoul should have been clear-eyed about the disadvantages its delayed decision on the CPTPP membership would bring about. In negotiations with existing members, South Korea may have to make some concessions on the terms of its entry, which could have been avoided if it became a founding signatory.
Moreover, Japan, which now holds the rotating chairmanship of the CPTPP, will likely be unfriendly to a belated bid from Korea for the membership of the trade bloc. Korea’s negotiation with Japan might also be stymied by the long-standing dispute between the two countries over their shared history. In this context, Seoul needs a long-term blueprint for improving strained ties with Tokyo while pushing to join the CPTPP.
Local farmers’ groups have raised strong objections to Korea’s envisioned membership of the trade accord, which requires its members to open their markets wider to imported agricultural products than other trade pacts.
But it should be recalled again that South Korea’s economy can prosper only by benefiting from open and free trade with the outside world. It is unthinkable for the country to stay out of a trade framework that may ultimately be joined by the world’s three largest economies -- the US, China and Japan.
Becoming part of a new global trade system and assuming an active role in it would enhance not only economic but also security interests for the country. In step with this move, efforts should be stepped up to lift regulations so that domestic rules can be in line with global standards.
By Korea Herald (firstname.lastname@example.org