Senators: China Could Join Trade Deal Designed to Counter Its Influence in Asia Pacific

Lawmakers note in letter that Beijing has repeatedly violated international trading norms

The central business district in Beijing / Wikimedia Commons

China could eventually be included in a landmark trade deal for Asian-Pacific countries despite Beijing’s flagrant violations of international trading laws and aggressive actions in the region, according to two U.S. senators.

Sens. Thom Tillis (R., N.C.) and Gary Peters (D., Mich.) sent a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman on Wednesday raising concerns about China’s potential inclusion in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). China has so far been excluded from the negotiations between the United States and 11 other countries on the TPP, which is widely viewed as an attempt to counter Beijing’s rising influence in the region.

Tillis and Peters said Froman has previously mentioned the possibility of a "special docking provision" in the TPP. That could allow China to eventually join the agreement.

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The senators noted that China has long been accused of stealing intellectual property from foreign companies to benefit domestic businesses. The U.S. Justice Department indicted five Chinese military officials last May for allegedly hacking into the computers of prominent steel, nuclear, and solar companies to obtain lucrative trade secrets.

Additionally, the United States has brought 16 dispute cases against China before the World Trade Organization (WTO) "on issues ranging from Intellectual Property Rights, export subsidies, discriminatory industrial practices, and restrictions on trading and distribution rights," the senators said.

"We have serious concerns about an agreement which would welcome countries with a history of currency manipulation, intellectual property theft, and failure to abide by existing global trade norms without prior congressional approval and oversight," they wrote.

The senators asked Froman whether the final TPP agreement would include the docking provision and how Congress could assess the entrance of new members such as China. Congress is currently debating legislation known as "fast track" that would allow lawmakers to hold an up-or-down vote on the trade deal without amendments. That bill, also known as trade promotion authority (TPA), passed the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday.

"In the event that this administration, or a future president, decides to add China to TPP, will Congress be limited to a simple up-or-down vote, without amendment, on the decision to have a free trade agreement with China?" the senators asked.

Trevor Kincaid, deputy assistant U.S. trade representative for public and media affairs, did not directly address the senators’ questions in a statement.

"TPP is intended to be a platform for regional integration that will grow as other interested countries are added who can demonstrate their readiness to meet the ambition and high standards of the agreement," he said.

Other Obama administration officials have stated that China could eventually join the TPP. William Craft, deputy assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs, said in March that, "we're certainly not doing this as an anti-Chinese thing."

"We can foresee them joining it," he added.

China has alarmed U.S. allies in the Asia Pacific with a series of aggressive maneuvers that include building military airstrips on contested islands. Beijing has also promoted alternative trade deals to the TPP that would challenge U.S. influence in the region, analysts say.