January 24, 2017 5:55 pm JST

Asia-Pacific scrambles to save TPP after Trump's blow

Australian trade chief suggests inviting China, Indonesia to join pact

TSUBASA SURUGA, Nikkei staff writer

TPP leaders at the APEC Summit in Lima on Nov. 19, 2016. © Reuters

TOKYO -- In line with his campaign promise, new U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order to pull the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. With the future of the massive free-trade agreement looking dimmer than ever, the remaining members are hoping to salvage the deal, with plans to hold talks in the coming months.

Following a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Japan's Trade Minister Hiroshige Seko said, "We will persistently appeal the strategic and economic significance of the TPP to the Trump administration."

Nobuteru Ishihara, the Japanese minister in charge of the pact, said he will seek the U.S. administration's understanding, adding: "Our belief that the free trade system is the source of growth remains firm."

Trump told reporters that withdrawing from the trade negotiations is a "great thing for the American worker." The TPP had yet to be ratified by the divided U.S. Congress.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the administration will now focus on bilateral trade agreements in the Asia-Pacific region. The U.S. may also seek a bilateral free trade deal with Japan, given that America's trade deficit with the country is $70 billion, the third largest after those with China and Germany.

Japan, however, is highly cautious about signing an FTA with the U.S. One concern is that the Trump administration will demand that Japan lower its tariffs even further than stipulated under the TPP. Another fear is that China will assume a greater role in shaping regional trade rules if the TPP fails to come into force.

In the meantime, Japan's cabinet is fighting to keep the talks alive. "The Trump administration has only just begun," said Agriculture Minister Yuji Yamamoto. "I have some hope that it will change its stance on the TPP."

Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso said Trump's executive order will have no immediate impact on the Japanese economy, adding that the negotiations will continue "if it benefits both the U.S. and Japan."

The remaining TPP members are busy looking for ways to make the deal happen. Australian Trade Minister Steven Ciobo said on Tuesday that the pact could be saved by encouraging China and other Asian nations, such as Indonesia, to join.

"Certainly I know Indonesia expressed a possible interest, and there would be scope for China if we were able to reformulate it," Ciobo told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Ciobo said he had already discussed the matter with officials from Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia following Trump's order.

In an emailed statement to Reuters, New Zealand Trade Minister Todd McClay said ministers from the remaining TPP nations are expected to meet in the coming months to discuss ways to move the deal forward.

Malaysian Minister of International Trade and Industry Mustapa Mohamed said in a statement that the TPP deal "is a balanced agreement beneficial to all of its members."

The U.S. would have also benefited from "better market access to countries which they do not have FTAs with, such as Japan, Vietnam and Malaysia," he added.

"Without the participation of the U.S., the TPP agreement as signed cannot take effect," a spokesperson from Singapore's Ministry of Trade and Industry said in a statement on Tuesday.

"There are other regional integration initiatives still ongoing, including the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the proposal for a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific. Singapore will continue to participate in these initiatives, "  the statement said.

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