China is seeking to join a major Asia-Pacific trade pact in a bid to enhance its clout in the region, just a day after a landmark US-UK-Australia security deal was announced seen as targeting Beijing's growing aggression.
Beijing announced on Friday that it has submitted an application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a free trade agreement between 11 countries signed in 2018 as part of former US president Barack Obama's efforts to counter China.
The UK began the process to join the pact in June after securing an agreement from member countries including Australia, Canada and Japan, part of a British post-Brexit pivot away from Europe.
China has lobbied before to join the deal as well but its ascension still requires a green light from founding nations – some of which are in diplomatic rows with Beijing.
Japan, which is chairing the partnership this year, said it would hold consultations about China’s request but didn’t announce a timeframe.
“Japan believes it’s necessary to determine whether China ... is ready to meet its extremely high standards,” economy minister Yasutoshi Nishimura told reporters on Friday.
Beijing would have to convince members that it would play by the rules – potentially a hard sell given its history of using economic coercion to squeeze nations, including ones with which it has already inked free trade agreements.
Just last year, China hiked tariffs and restricted Australian imports amid a spat with Canberra. Beijing has also used similar tactics against Japan and Canada.
As member countries, all three will need to sign off on China joining the pact.
Accession to the CPTPP now would be a big boost for China, especially after signing another major free trade agreement with 15 nations last year.
The free trade agreement is the successor to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which former US president Donald Trump pulled out of in 2017 - one of his first decisions in the White House.
It comes a day after a pact dubbed Aukus was announced that will see London, Washington and Canberra share military technologies, starting with building nuclear submarines.
Although China was not specifically mentioned, it has been seen as part of a coordinated strategy to counter Beijing's increasing belligerence in the Indo-Pacific region.
On Friday, US and Australia issued a statement of support that analysts described as a significant shift in tone.
“Both sides stated their intent to strengthen ties with Taiwan, which is a leading democracy and a critical partner for both countries,” read a statement released after US secretary of state Anthony Blinken met with Australian foreign minister Marise Payne.
The countries also expressed concern about China’s “expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea that are without legal basis,” stressing opposition to the militarisation of disputed features and the “dangerous use of coast guard and maritime militia.”
The statement is "a notable step forward on last year's, with additional wording on Taiwan's status as a democracy and commitment to the future,” said Dr Mark Harrison, a Taiwan expert at the University of Tasmania.
“It points to the success of the Tsai government in building relations with the US and to Australia's assessment of its priorities in the region in light of deteriorating relations with Beijing.”
The UK, US and Australia do not recognise Taiwan as a country but they do have strong informal relations with the government of President Tsai Ing-wen. The US is Taiwan’s biggest arms supplier and the primary guarantor of its security.