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TPP Agreement Fuels Debate Online in China

Trade ministers from a dozen Pacific nations in Trans-Pacific Partnership Ministers meeting post in TPP Ministers "Family Photo" in Atlanta, Georgia, October 1, 2015.
Trade ministers from a dozen Pacific nations in Trans-Pacific Partnership Ministers meeting post in TPP Ministers "Family Photo" in Atlanta, Georgia, October 1, 2015.

News that the United States, Japan and 10 other Pacific Rim nations have finalized the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement has prompted some soul searching online in China about the world’s second-largest economy and why it is not a part of the globe’s biggest regional trade pact.

The TPP, which aims to raise trade standards, end more than 18,000 tariffs and open the Internet, even in communist Vietnam, is seen as a key step in Washington’s efforts to rebalance its economic presence in Asia.

So far, China has been kept out of the discussions, but Beijing has long played a key role in efforts to promote the deal. President Barack Obama echoed that sentiment on Monday in a statement on the agreement.

“When more than 95 percent of our potential customers live outside our borders, we can’t let countries like China write the rules of the global economy,” Obama said. “We should write those rules, opening new markets to American products while setting high standards for protecting workers and preserving our environment.”

Boxed in, boxed out?

For some, the president’s remarks were but the latest confirmation that the key aim of the agreement is to give Washington the upper hand in the region and sideline China.

A story by the party-backed Global Times on the agreement carried the headline: “U.S., Japan and 10 Other Nations Create Massive Economic Bloc to Rival China.”

Another story by Xinhua argued that the door to the TPP cannot be closed to China forever.

It quoted well-known political scientist Yang Xiyu who argued that although the TPP showed up right at China’s doorstep and kept Beijing out, that is only temporary.

“In the long run, if the body aims to continue its development, it will surely open its door to China,” Yang said.

But where some saw China being boxed out, others said it was Beijing that had boxed itself in.

“Nations that are joining the TPP have political systems that have pledged to respect human rights, democracy, rule of law … and universal values,” said one commentator from China’s southern Guandong province. “Do you think China could make such a pledge?”


On the social media site Weibo, another person noted that China sets up so many barriers, such as quotas for foreign cultural products such as movies, that it has no way of participating.

“How can other countries compete with you (China) since they can do nothing but wait for you to dump your low-cost products on them, made from sweat factories?” the post asked. “You (China) make no concessions at all. No one should be blamed for [China's] self-isolation.”

Many were concerned about the impact China’s lack of participation might have, with one warning that China could face “a slow death ahead if it fails to join (the TPP).”

Others suggested the deal serves as an ominous warning that this is the beginning of the end for China as the world’s factory. Some said the deal might further accelerate the shift of factories away from China.

One even quoted a popular phrase from the U.S.-television show “Game of Thrones” warning “winter is coming” for the world’s second-largest economy.

Pressure points

Some said the pressure that the TPP would exert on China was actually a good thing, arguing that it could push the Chinese government to improve its human rights record and governing transparency.

“Think of what good the WTO has done on China to improve ourselves,” one posting said.

William Choong, a senior fellow at International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore, said the agreement leaves China with little choice but to push forward with rather intensive reforms.

“China will have to make some painful decisions about what to loosen up or to institute reforms and so on in the areas, that are required in order to accede to the TPP,” Choong said.

Whether or not China can do that is less certain, he adds.

“I am not sure any sitting CCP (Chinese Communist Party) government will have the guts to actually carry (such reforms) out," Choong said.