Satoshi Ikeuchi, Professor, Religion and Global Security, University of Tokyo

The great power competition between the U.S. and China is fought in two fronts, in military and economy.

While the tensions on the military front attract attention, such as the swarm of Chinese warplanes trespassing Taiwan’s air defense zone, it is the diplomacy over economic agreement behind the scenes that is really fiercely fought.

The day after the U.S. announced the AUKUS, which may develop into a new anti-China military alliance among US, UK, and Australia, China suddenly applied for membership in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) treaty late at night on September 16.

The flurry of events, sending application by email to the secretariat of CPTPP, which is located in New Zealand’s trade ministry, in the middle of the night shows how the situation is tense.

The CPTPP is the most comprehensive free trade agreement, also known as TPP-11, since it was signed by 11 countries including Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, and New Zealand in March 2018.

It was originally signed on February 2016, then called just TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) agreement. The agreement was led by US, and included 12 countries, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. It was obvious that this agreement was meant to contain China’s regional influence.

The original TPP was signed but never entered into force, as the US under President Trump withdrew from it in January 2017. It was one of the largest foreign policy blunder for the Trump administration since it missed the golden opportunity to build an economic camp encircling China.

Remaining 11 signatories of TPP maintained the momentum and agreed on the revised version of the CPTPP was signed in 2018 and became effective at the end of the year.

Japan, as CPTPP’s chair this year and one of the main driving forces of the original TPP, kept the door open to US for reentry.

China tries to break in through this door in the absence of US. This is a smart tactic to exploit the weakness of US which was the legacy of the erratic Trump administration.

It might not be easy for China, with its strong state-capitalism regulations and interventions, to fulfill the requirements for entering the most advanced free trade agreement on earth.

Even if it may not be allowed to enter, it can cause division among CPTPP countries for their difference on China.

Taiwan submitted an application to join CPTPP on September 22, countering Chinese approach in this economic camp which was supposed to become US-led economic bloc.