BEIJING/SINGAPORE -- Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday said China is open to joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, in a likely move to bolster the country's presence in Asia while the U.S. focuses on its presidential transition.
China "will favorably consider joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership," Xi said, referring to the 11-member trade pact, during a virtual summit for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
Twenty-one economies, including Japan, China, the U.S., Canada, South Korea and Indonesia, took part in the APEC summit.
His remarks signaled that China plans to play a larger economic role in the region as the U.S. retreats from multilateral trade frameworks. President Donald Trump has pulled the U.S. out of the TPP under his "America first" strategy.
The Chinese leader also welcomed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a long-sought trade pact that 15 countries including China, Japan and South Korea signed the weekend prior.
This is the first time Xi commented on joining the TPP, a deal renamed as the CPTPP after the U.S. departed. The pact went into force at the end of 2018 and includes such nations as Japan, Australia and Singapore.
Chinese entry into the TPP would make make Xi’s government a member of the Asia-Pacific region’s two biggest trade arrangements, while Washington is part of neither.
"We must stay as determined as ever to support the multilateral trading system with the World Trade Organization at its core, promote free and open trade and investment, and make economic globalization more open, inclusive, balanced and beneficial to all," Xi said. "Continued efforts are needed to press ahead with regional economic integration," he added.
A day earlier, Chinese Commerce Ministry spokesperson Gao Feng had said China will assume "an open and positive attitude" toward the idea of joining the TPP. Xi also spoke against the rise of protectionism during an event leading up to the summit.
Other APEC leaders on Friday also discussed the need to maintain free trade and investments even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga pushed to bring new members into the TPP and called for creating a free trade framework across the Asia-Pacific. He stressed the importance of digital transformation and technological advancements in leading the global economy out of the coronavirus-induced funk.
APEC, which accounts for roughly 60% of the world's gross domestic product, "assumes a central role in spearheading post-pandemic economic recovery," said Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who chaired the summit. Trump attended the event as well.
APEC leaders issued their first joint statement in three years at the end of the meeting, which included a call for cooperation within the bloc on responding to the pandemic and on developing vaccines.
The countries "will cooperate to facilitate the movement of essential goods and services, as well as the essential movement of people in a safe manner," the statement said.
The bloc failed to issue a statement in 2018 due to tensions between the U.S. and China, and in 2019 after Chile pulled out as its host. But the latest summit signaled that the bloc, which shares many members with RCEP, is starting to unite behind the banner of free trade. APEC could use the new trade deal and the TPP as building blocks for greater economic integration.