A Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP): A Game of Go? Or Three-dimensional Chess?

Written by Chun-Yi Lee and Michael Reilly.

Image Credit: Liz Truss CPTCC Heads of Mission Roundtable by Number 10/ Flickr, License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The CPTPP is an ambitious, wide-ranging free trade agreement (FTA) signed between Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, New Zealand, Singapore, and Vietnam in March 2018. The CPTPP was originally named as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and comprised twelve members. However, after the Trump administration withdrew the USA from it in 2017, the remaining eleven countries reorganised and renamed it. After leaving the EU, the UK applied to join in February 2021, followed by China and Taiwan in September. South Korea has been considering joining but has yet to do so. Countries seeking to join the bloc must negotiate tariffs and other market access conditions with each of the eleven original members. 

The three new applications liken the CPTPP to a game of Go, the East Asian strategy board game because they come together closely. Often compared to chess, it is far more complicated, with as many as an estimated 2.1×10170 possible moves. Hence, it was only in 2015 that a computer program, AlphaGo, beat a professional Go player. Moreover, moving just one piece can change the dynamics of the whole game. As if this was not already complex enough, the CPTPP applications can be likened to different players (the applicants) taking turns at the board so that when their turn comes round again, the other players have changed the board in ways outside their control. And even though the USA is a non-player, it is a far from a disinterested spectator who might or might not intervene at various times and in not always predictable ways. 

The Dynamics of the Game

In this special issue, we collect different perspectives from the TSP conference held at the University of Nottingham on the 17th and 18th of June to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the complexities. Others joined European conference participants from the USA, Canada, Singapore, and Australia. They were also joined ‘virtually’ by others from Taiwan, China, Japan, and the USA over video link. This made it a truly global event and not an inconsiderable challenge, both technically and for those participants struggling with jet lag or having to present papers at anti-social hours. But the complexities of the organisation were amply repaid by the stimulating contributions and richness of the discussion. 

While all players want to win, their reasons for doing so are different. Economic objectives may be an inspiration, or domestic or foreign policy considerations could also drive them. This relates to what Putnam calls a two-level game, in which the diplomatic decision is a compromise in response to domestic pressure groups. We see this compromise in the UK’s, Taiwan’s and, to some extent, China’s applications. A fourth potential player, South Korea, currently hesitates from joining the game as it cannot reconcile the conflicting pressures of domestic interest groups and national economic and diplomatic needs.

To make the game even more unpredictable, the wider environment in which it is occurring is far from static. The Covid pandemic has already lasted for more than two years and sees much of China still under lockdown, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine has created new uncertainties. Not only must the players successfully overcome these and other still unknown challenges, but they must also deal with the unpredictability of some current participants or members of the CPTPP. The complexity of this CPTPP board game would surely defy AlphaGo. 

In her paper, Morita-Jaeger observes that although the Johnson government is keen to join the CPTPP, its enthusiasm is driven by its post-Brexit rhetoric and ‘Global Britain’ slogan. However, the application is not without reservations from civil society. She suggests that the implications for the UK are considerable and may not have been fully considered. For example, will the government be comfortable whittling down the privacy requirements of GDPR to meet CPTPP common data standards, especially with China as a prospective member? In addition, the objections that civil society groups raised over potentially lower food/environmental standards or threats to the NHS under the planned Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership TTIP and Investor-State Dispute Settlement ISDS have not gone away. 

Lim and Chen’s paper looks at ‘Global Britain’ from a different perspective, namely the impact of British foreign direct investment (FDI) in South East Asia, which it compares with that of China and Taiwan. They show little overlap in the investment from the three countries, either in geographical area or type of investment. Nevertheless, while investment from the UK continues to be more important, it is heavily concentrated in Singapore and Malaysia. The tentative conclusion is that the influence of the UK in South East Asia is set to decline relative to that of China, despite the ‘Global Britain’ policy. 

The case of South Korea makes an interesting comparison with those of China, Taiwan and the UK and is introduced by Zoe Lee. She argues that domestic interests, ideas, and institutions are the main influences that will decide whether the government in Seoul applies to join the CPTPP. Although reservations are driven more strongly by the agricultural and fishery sector rather than the chaebols, concern about Japan’s attitude is also a major factor. It is a dilemma that Seoul will likely grapple with this for some time. 

So far, existing CPTPP members are cautious in reacting to these three applications, especially those of China and Taiwan but even that of the UK. This is perhaps to the surprise of the government in London. Australia has also been more vocal in giving a negative message about China’s application. This is influenced not only by the recent China-Solomon Islands’ new security agreement but also by difficult bilateral trading relations with China since 2018. However, submissions from interest groups and industry about the applications increasingly focus less on the trade benefits and more on improved rules to govern trade. Given this, the British government’s apparent willingness to over-rule the Northern Ireland protocol in its treaty with the EU could negatively affect its application. It is too early to tell whether Canberra’s newly elected Albanese government will have a different approach than the previous Morrison government. 

For Japan, the applications pose something of a dilemma, apart from that of the UK, which in 2018 was encouraged to apply for membership by then prime minister Shinzo Abe. Katada explained that while Japan also intends to support Taiwan’s application, it is cautious about China for geopolitical and geoeconomics concerns. The caution is almost certainly shared by many if not all other members, but they are likely to be reluctant to say so openly, especially if Japan itself does not do so. 

Any discussion of the applications would be impossible without considering the two ‘elephants in the room’ (or on the Go board): China’s hostility to the application from Taiwan and the attitude and expectations of the USA. Participants in the conference felt that it would be wrong to conclude that a negative attitude towards China’s application would automatically translate into a positive one towards Taiwan. In the case of Canada, for example, although Stephens explained that Canada has not put ‘China First, Taiwan Second,’ it is difficult to see how it might put Taiwan first, China second. There was a broad consensus that China today is not the China that joined the WTO in 2001. In the twenty years since then, China has grown exponentially in its economic power and, arguably, military might but politically remains a highly authoritarian country. The method of admission for both China and Taiwan to the WTO seems unlikely to work in the case of the CPTPP. Therefore, even though Taiwan has applied to join as a customs territory, not a sovereign state. He, Magcamit and Chow’s papers emphasised the role of cross-Strait competition in the applications and the difficulty of finding a way around this. For those tempted simply to exclude Taiwan, however, Roy Lee provided an important reminder of its key role in many critical supply chains. 

Goto, by contrast, suggested that Taiwan is in danger of getting its priorities wrong, focussing on sovereignty rather than economic resilience. Instead of devoting so much energy to its CPTPP application, she argued that Taipei should focus on ensuring that its technology industry remains compliant with the industry standards established between the USA and Japan. 

And what of the role of the USA? Not entirely kindly, one journalist summed it up not so long ago: ‘Sometimes international diplomacy is so inept that it becomes genuinely entertaining. Recent US trade policy in the Asia-Pacific region is a case in point.’ Having withdrawn from the CPTPP and no longer able to influence the applications directly, the USA has created the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), from which Taiwan is pointedly excluded. Although in his contribution, DeLisle argues that IPEF is not as prominent as the CPTPP on the economic front, excluding Taiwan from it signifies that the USA maintains its policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ in dealing with regional economic matters. 

In such complicated circumstances, it is surely premature to speculate as to what the outcome might be. Many participants pointed out that the applications by China and Taiwan to join the WTO took 15 years to materialise, at a time when the world dynamic was quite different to that of 2022. Add to that the implications of a western economy, the UK, joining the Pacific economic chess board. This special issue presents scholars’ analysis of the current dynamics but avoids firm conclusions. This game of Go looks set to run for years to come. We will continue to watch it closely. 

Chun-yi Lee is an Associate Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham. She is also the director of the Taiwan Studies Programme (TSP) and Taiwan Insight Editor in Chief.

Michael Reilly has been a Senior Fellow in the Taiwan Studies Programme of the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham since 2015. A former British diplomat, his final position was as the British representative in Taiwan from 2005 – to 2009. He has also held a senior position as the chief representative in China for one of the UK’s largest manufacturing companies and was a Visiting Fellow in the Institute for European and American Studies at Academia Sinica in Taipei in 2016 and 2019. He is also a member of the Advisory Board of the Global Taiwan Institute. His most recent book, The Great Free Trade Myth: British Foreign Policy and East Asia since 1980, was published in 2020. 

This article was published as part of a special issue on “Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.”

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