China announced on Thursday that it has formally applied to join a Pacific Rim trade pact abandoned four years ago by the US, a move that is likely to bring Washington and its allies into more contention with Beijing. Beijing’s new trade minister Wang Wentao submitted a written request to New Zealand trade and export growth minister Damien O’Connor, and the two officials conducted a teleconference “to communicate on the follow-up work related to China’s formal application”, according to the Chinese ministry. The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which includes New Zealand, Japan, Canada, Mexico and seven other countries, accounts for about 13 per cent of global commerce. It is the successor to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which former US president Donald Trump withdrew from as one of his first actions in the White House in 2017. Washington led TPP negotiations under then-acting deputy US trade representative Wendy Cutler, but the pact became highly politicised in the US during the country’s 2016 general election. Trump and other critics seized on the trade pact as an initiative that would hasten the loss of domestic manufacturing jobs. Many prominent analysts, including former US trade representative Charlene Barshefsky, the former US ambassador to China Winston Lord and Evan Medeiros, a former National Security Council official, have since argued that Washington should enter into negotiations with CPTPP members to prevent China from gaining influence over global trading rules. They reiterated that warning this week in a white paper published to highlight their recommendations on countering China’s growing influence economically, militarily and on other fronts. China’s application follows a similar move by Britain in January, in what could turn into a polarising issue among current members. EU, unveiling Indo-Pacific strategy, admits new ‘Aukus’ pact was a surprise “China wants to get ball rolling in negotiations before the UK joins the pact because vetoes on China joining will become more of a threat if the UK is in while Beijing is out,” said Sourabh Gupta, a senior fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies in Washington. “The only other party with an unwelcoming attitude is Japan, and other Asian countries might be well disposed to China joining – Singapore, [Vietnam], Malaysia and Brunei – in particular.” “Before the bar gets raised any higher on entry, China prefers to be in,” Gupta added. “Besides, it’s [a] nice way to thumb their noses at the Americans, who have to get their act together on where they want to go on trade liberalisation.” Japan currently holds presidency of the CPTPP’s decision-making body, while New Zealand is responsible for receiving accession requests as the depositary for the trade pact. Once the decision-making body approves the start of the process for entry, a working-level group must be set up to proceed with accession talks. Applicants must show that they intend to comply with CPTPP rules and start tariff negotiations on a bilateral basis with current members. The UK government said in June that the CPTPP accession process has begun. “Membership is a huge opportunity for Britain,” UK international trade minister Liz Truss said at the time. “It will help shift our economic centre of gravity away from Europe towards faster-growing parts of the world, and deepen our access to massive consumer markets in the Asia-Pacific.” China’s application to join the CPTPP comes as it prepares for the implementation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), another trade pact with countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Engineered by Beijing in what is widely seen as a bid to counter Washington’s economic clout in the region, RCEP is formed of the 10 nations that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) , plus China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. IMF chief called out on pressure to lift China ranking in report Finalised last November, RCEP still needs to be ratified by a number of member countries before its anticipated implementation in January 2022. But while the deal has been viewed as a win for Beijing as it shores up economic relations in the region, RCEP’s provisions largely relate to the elimination of tariffs and reduction of other trade barriers. By comparison, the CPTPP has a larger scope, incorporating commitments to labour standards and environmental protections, rules to prevent market distortion owing to state-owned enterprises, regulations around intellectual property, and rules governing financial services, among other things. Asked about China’s application on Thursday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden “has been clear that he would not rejoin the TPP as it was initially put forward”. Trump forced Canada and Mexico back to the negotiating table in 2018 to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) to include, among other changes, more stringent labour and environmental provisions. Analysts have said similar revisions would be needed within the CPTPP framework in order for Congress to support entering into negotiations with the bloc. Biden has “also been clear that we would have to join with the 40 per cent of the world that we had with us for the deal and make sure that environmentalists and labour are at the table”, Psaki said, referring to the percentage of global commerce that CPTPP would account for if Washington had remained in the group. The Biden administration is “looking at a range of options, of course, to forge stronger economic partnerships in the Indo-Pacific. Trade is not the only one”, she added. China hits out at ‘highly irresponsible’ Aukus defence pact Another change to Nafta, which became USMCA after it was revised and put into effect last year, may affect China’s bid to join CPTPP more directly. That change allows any of the three USMCA parties to withdraw from the bloc if either of the other two enter into a trade agreement with a non-market economy, which Washington deems China to be. “With the US not inclined right now to play the TPP game, it’s not clear whether it will block others and be a dog in the manger,” Gupta said. “The Trump team would have been; I suspect the Biden team probably not, but it will demand that Canada and Mexico keep it posted on details of the negotiations. “So that even when outside, the US could shape the terms of the negotiation with respect to China,” he said.