A new chapter is opening up for the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on Trans-Pacific Partnership as the UK prepares to become the bloc’s first acceding member later this year.
Long accessions queue extended to Ukraine
With half a dozen further countries now sitting in the CPTPP waiting room, it is difficult to predict exactly how that chapter will ultimately be closed.
The regional trade pact owes its creation – in its current form – to the US’s decision in 2016 to shun the planned Trans-Pacific Partnership. Now the 11-nation bloc is struggling to work out how it should deal with its new-found popularity.
With the UK’s terms of entry now essentially agreed, the next two countries in line to discuss their accession to the bloc are China and its neighbour Taiwan – two countries with unresolved political tensions.
This only serves to underline the headaches which the founder members now face in determining CPTPP’s future direction.
Formal accession notifications have been received also from Costa Rica and Ecuador, as well as from Uruguay – curiously, a member of the Mercosur customs union – and from Ukraine.
That latter application, submitted last month, is likely to be a symbolic one, given that Kyiv’s primary economic policy aim is to become an EU member state.
But it illustrates how CPTPP’s reach and influence is increasingly extending beyond the Pacific region from which it takes its notoriously long name.
CPTPP ministerial focus
Managing current and future accession initiatives will be at the forefront of the agenda when trade ministers from the 11 current member countries – Canada, Mexico, Peru, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Japan – meet in Auckland, New Zealand on 15-16 July for the bloc’s seventh ministerial commission.
Greg Andrews, a senior official in New Zealand’s ministry of foreign affairs and trade, stuck rigidly to the official line at a webinar on CPTPP on Monday (22 May) organised by King’s College London.
“Accession and expansion is at the heart of the CPTPP agreement,” Andrews said.
“We welcome interest from economies that can meet our standards and rules. All economies have to find their own way to implement the rules that are in place.”
But wider questions about the future accession process remain unanswered for now.
Will countries’ accessions be dealt with strictly in chronological order of their formal applications, or will some other form of triage be applied? Will CPTPP members be prepared to engage in accession negotiations with more than one applicant country at a time?
And what will happen when one applicant country disputes the sovereignty of another – as in the case of China and Taiwan?
These are some of the unresolved questions which New Zealand, which holds the rotating chairmanship of CPTPP this year, will need to grapple with in the run-up to the Auckland meeting.
Completing the UK’s accession process
A more immediate concern is the completion of the UK’s integration into the bloc, following the conclusion of accession negotiations in late March.
“We need to get to a legally signed document – we are working on that at present,” said Graham Zebedee, the UK’s chief negotiator in the CPTPP accession talks, who was speaking at the same webinar this week.
“We believe this accession agreement will be signed in the coming months.”
Zebedee explained that the UK parliament would need to ratify the agreement, and adopt any legislative side-instruments which may be necessary to implement the deal.
This will follow a similar process to the UK parliament’s ratification of the Australia and New Zealand free trade agreements. Notably this will include the submission of a report by the UK trade and agriculture commission on the compatibility of the accession agreement with existing UK regulations on food safety, animal welfare and the environment.
Similar ratification processes will also be required by the legislatures of the 11 existing CPTPP members before the accession is formalised.
“From then on, the UK will be able to take part in CPTPP member meetings – about reviews of the rules, and also future accessions,” Zebedee said.
Looking ahead to a treaty review process
The UK had applied to join CPTPP because the bloc “symbolises the trade values that the UK likes”, he went on.
“CPTPP has not sacrificed a lot of depth in order to achieve the width that it has got. It’s a really good trade agreement, and it’s likely to grow in the future”.
But the agreement is also about to undergo a periodic review, as mandated in the treaty. This overhaul of CPTPP will be the other main item on the agenda at the Auckland commission meeting, alongside the accession question.
“It’s about maintaining the gold standard of CPTPP rules,” said New Zealand official Greg Andrews. “We’ll be reviewing it to make sure it reflects developments in trade policy since 2018, and developments within the Asia-Pacific region itself.”
Andrews did not specify which areas of the treaty would be targeted for an update, although a review of the environment chapter to include a currently-lacking mention of climate objectives would be an obvious target.
The growing global focus on CPTPP – and its imminent spread beyond the confines of the Pacific Rim region – has led to speculation in some quarters that the bloc may grow in importance and evolve into a kind of parallel world trade agreement for liberally-minded countries.
CPTPP reached a significant milestone on 14 May when Brunei ratified its membership of the bloc – the eleventh and final founding member to have done so.
This means that as from 12 July – 60 days on from the notification date – the CPTPP’s provisions will finally be force in all of its signatory members, some four and a half years after the pact entered provisionally into force in December 2018.
Martin Bell, deputy director of the Scotch Whisky Association, suggested that CPTPP could become “a proving ground for new disciplines that could end up in the WTO”.
Bell said he though it was “inevitable that the US will join CPTPP at some point in the future” – a move which, if it were to happen, would truly give global heft to the pact.
But Sabina Ciofu, associate director of techUK, played down the role of CPTPP as compared with other, more globally established fora for trade regulation.
“There are 87 countries currently involved in plurilateral negotiations on e-commerce in Geneva – that’s more countries than would ever join CPTPP,” she pointed out. “So there’s still a role for the WTO.”