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Economy

Australia approves TPP-11, raises chance of pact taking effect in early 2019

New Zealand and Vietnam set to debate ratification of trans-Pacific trade deal

Representatives from Trans-Pacific Partnership members pose for photos in March after the signing ceremony in Chile.   © Reuters

SYDNEY/TOKYO -- Australia's senate passed legislation Wednesday on ratifying the reworked Trans-Pacific Partnership, a $10 trillion trade pact among 11 nations, making it the fourth country to approve the deal and raising its chances of taking effect early next year.

New Zealand and Vietnam are expected to follow suit in a matter of weeks, rounding out the six nations needed for the pact to take effect. The so-called TPP-11 deal was hammered out in March after U.S. President Donald Trump abruptly withdrew the U.S. from the agreement in 2017, with countries now pushing through domestic ratification processes.

Mexico, Japan and Singapore have ratified the new deal, which would cover 15% of global trade.

Rising trade tensions between the U.S. and China have rattled financial markets, spurring momentum in Asia to counter the uncertainty by closing the drawn-out trade deal in a show of unity.

Despite tense partisan politics and signs of backlash from labor unions, Australia's two major parties agreed to move the ratification legislation through parliament, banking on the deal's promise for the country's export-reliant farm and natural resource industries.

New Zealand's parliament is to debate similar legislation Thursday. Ratification "should be before December," said a spokesperson from Trade Minister David Parker's office, faster than initially scheduled.

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc told reporters in Hanoi on Oct. 6 that his country's parliament intends to ratify the TPP-11 in the upcoming session that ends in November, saying the pact will "draw out [Vietnam's] maximum possible latent economic and trade potential."

The TPP was brought back from the brink after the American withdrawal appeared to deliver a fatal blow, slashing two-thirds of the pact's value by gross domestic product and threatening to undo years of negotiation under previous U.S. President Barack Obama. The remaining members -- including Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Brunei and Peru -- salvaged a deal after months of renegotiation.

The countries call the TPP-11, now formally known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a high-standard agreement on liberalizing trade and investment. They say it remains open to the U.S. should Washington decide to return.

Meanwhile, China is testing the waters to join the TPP-11 as Beijing seeks to buffer its strained trade relationship with Washington, the South China Morning Post reported on Friday, citing a source close to the government. China is the main player in negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a proposed trade pact that encompasses 16 Asia-Pacific countries.

Any move by China to join the TPP "would seem more about seeking allies" than economic gain, said Roland Rajah, director of the International Economy Program at the Lowy Institute think tank in Sydney. The legal changes needed to comply with the TPP-11 would be far more exhaustive for China than for the current members, but the effort would benefit the trade pact's original goal of bringing China into line with global trade norms, he said.

On top of its reinforcement of global trade networks, the TPP-11 has taken on new significance as a bulwark against protectionism. The agreement serves as a "strong signal of our commitment to trade liberalization and a rules-based trading system," Singaporean Trade Minister Chan Chun Sing said as the country ratified the pact in July.

Colombia has filed a request to join the TPP-11, while Thailand and Indonesia also have expressed interest in joining. Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in an interview with the Financial Times that the pact would welcome the U.K. "with open arms" as the country seeks new trade networks following Brexit next year.

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