China's Xi Considers Joining Trade Deal Replacing TPP That Trump Abandoned

Chinese President Xi Jinping has expressed potential openness to joining a comprehensive multinational trade deal developed in the wake of an earlier agreement scrapped by U.S. President Donald Trump, who also attended an international meeting held via video conference on Friday.

In the 27th leaders' meeting of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), Xi said that he "will favorably consider joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership," also known as the CPTPP, a trade agreement involving Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam, according to a transcript shared by the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

The accord is widely seen as the successor to the dozen-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an earlier proposed trade deal drafted in 2015, signed in 2016 but never entered into force with Trump's withdrawal soon after entering office the following year.

The remaining 11 nations agreed in 2018 to form the CPTPP, which is nearly identical to the agreement with certain exceptions such as the ommission of 22 provisions pushed forward by the U.S. Now China, the world's largest economy after the U.S. and the first by purchasing power parity, has given its strongest indication yet of joining.

The meeting follows the recent signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), termed the world's largest trade deal, as it involves all current CPTPP members as well as China, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand. Xi said Friday that China "welcomes" the move as part of his initiative to foster an "open and inclusive" economy.

"The world economy is like the Pacific Ocean around us—it admits water from various rivers, and connects different parts of the world," Xi said. "As such, it has acquired a vast magnitude and enormous vitality. The approach of pursuing cooperation as equals and resolving differences with mutual respect is what essentially makes economic development and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific possible."

Xi decried protectionism and unilateralism, and also called for joint efforts to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.

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A screen shows the virtual meeting between world leaders, including U.S. President Donald Trump (bottom R), Russian President Vladimir Putin (bottom L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (L, second row from top), during the online Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders' summit in Kuala Lumpur on November 20. Xi said China "favorably consider joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership," also known as the CPTPP. MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images

Other Chinese officials have indicated their country's potential willingness to join the CPTPP in response to Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide's call on Thursday for the "expansion" of the agreement, which his nation is set to chair next year.

Asked earlier Friday about Beijing's position on becoming a part of the CPTPP, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian answered said such a move was a possibility as long as the deal fell in line with national, regional and international goals, including those laid out by the World Trade Organization (WTO).

"China is a staunch supporter of trade liberalization and facilitation and also an important participant in Asia Pacific cooperation and economic integration," Zhao said. "For various free trade arrangements, as long as they serve economic integration of the Asia Pacific, comply with the principles of transparency, openness and inclusiveness, and uphold the WTO-centered global free trade regime, China remains positive and open towards them."

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is scheduled to travel to Japan, as well as South Korea, next week.

The moves come during what is expected to be the final weeks of the Trump administration. The outgoing U.S. leader has adopted a protectionist position on trade, implementing tariffs on partners across the globe in a stated effort to boost his country's domestic industries.

Trump has also taken a tough stance on China, which he has accused of taking advantage of the U.S. on trade issues through abuses such as currency manipulation, intellectual property theft and unfair competition through state-backed businesses.

The U.S. president also took part in Friday's APEC meeting, his first appearance in the annual event. Trump, who was previously absent from last week's East Asia Summit and Thursday's APEC CEO, showed up to the leaders' summit as one of only two out of the 21 heads of state present to appear without the official APEC backdrop that paid homage to host country Malaysia.

The other was Russian President Vladimir Putin, who still opted to brandish the APEC logo on a flag beside him. Trump simply sat before his own country's presidential seal.

Trump's remarks were not made available to the media but the White House later sent Newsweek a readout of the president's comments.

"In his address, President Trump reaffirmed the commitment of the United States to building on our unprecedented economic recovery from COVID-19," the readout said, "as well as promoting peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region through strong economic growth."

The U.S. has the most deaths in the world from COVID-19 at more than 250,000, more than twice the number of deaths reported by China, despite its far larger population, according to Johns Hopkins. The Trump administration continues to blame China for the worldwide spread of he coronavirus.

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This combination of pictures shows recent portraits of China's President Xi Jinping (L) and U.S. President Donald Trump. The U.S. leader has gone so far as to threaten a decoupling of the U.S. economy from China in order to confront his country's top economic competitor. DAN KITWOOD/NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

The White House has been a staunch opponent of Chinese economic, political and military moves in the Asia-Pacific, known to the U.S. and its partners as the Indo-Pacific, where Washington has accused Beijing of pursuing hegemony based on the ideals of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

"Our vision for the Indo-Pacific region is one comprised of nations that are independent, strong, and prosperous, and our relationships flow from a spirit of respect and partnership," a State Department spokesperson told Newsweek last week. "The United States welcomes any investment and trade that promotes sustainable, fair, and responsible economic development and growth."

The Trump administration claims the People's Republic of China and Xi's Belt and Road Initiative of investment and infrastructure projects across the globe fit that description.

"Unfortunately, PRC 'investments' often consist of opaque loans made by PRC state-owned banks disbursed to PRC contractors, for projects that do not allow any non-PRC bidders," the spokesperson said. "The United States offers a positive alternative – our transparent, private sector-driven model comes with a proven track record for delivering sustainable growth, reducing poverty, and fostering technological innovation."

The State Department released a paper Wednesday entitled "The Elements of the China Challenge." It laid out a 10-point strategy to ideologically confront the rise of China and its Communist Party.

In his daily press conference Thursday following its release, Zhao called it "another collection of lies piled up by the those 'living fossils of the Cold War' from the U.S. State Department."

Zhao portrayed the U.S. as the aggressor while China only seeks peace.

"It only serves to lay bare the entrenched Cold War mindset and ideological prejudice of some people on the U.S. side and their fear, anxiety and unhealthy mentality towards a growing China," Zhao said. "Their vile attempts to bring back the Cold War will be mercilessly rejected by the Chinese people and all peace-lovers around the world. They and their doomed attempts will end up in nowhere but the dustbin of history."