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Japan, South Korea Meet to Discuss Seoul Joining TPP; China Remains Excluded

Potentially complicating already stalled Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, Japan and South Korea began talks today, March 6, to explore the possibility that South Korea might join the TPP.

South Korea has long expressed an interest in its inclusion in the twelve-nation talks that includes the  U.S., Vietnam, Singapore, Australia, Peru, Brunei, New Zealand, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, Canada and Japan. And just recently one of its top trade representatives said, “[The government] expects participation in the TPP to help [the country] secure a big market spanning over the Asia-Pacific region and to allow competition with the other member countries on an equal footing.”

Some argue that South Korea would be a natural fit for membership since it already has bilateral free trade pacts with the European Union (E.U.) and the U.S.. Up until now, South Korea has demurred in response to invitations to take a seat at the TPP table, preferring to focus its diplomatic energies on a series of separate trade negotiations with China and Australia.

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman issued an offical statement commenting on the prospects of South Korea’s TPP membership:

“The United States welcomes Korea’s expression of interest in joining TPP.  Korea plays an important role in the regional economy, and its interest in the TPP demonstrates the significant importance of this initiative to the region.

“In close consultation with Congress and our domestic stakeholders, we look forward to consulting with Korea at an appropriate time to lay the groundwork for Korea’s possible entry into the TPP.   The U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement already demonstrates that Korea and the United States share a common approach with regard to certain rules for trade and investment. As with previous prospective members, these consultations will focus on Korea’s readiness to meet high standards across the TPP, as well as to address outstanding bilateral issues of concern including full implementation of existing obligations.”

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“President Obama, the other TPP Leaders and their teams are currently working actively to complete the negotiations.  Given that prior to entry any new member needs to complete bilateral consultations with current TPP members and those members need to complete domestic processes, as appropriate, the possible entry of any new country would be expected to occur after the negotiations among the current members are concluded.”

Japan’s chief TPP negotiator, Koji Tsuruoka, met with South Korea’s Assistant Trade Minister, Woo Tae-hee, to investigate the possibilities for further trade collaboration. Koji Tsuruoka said that Japan enthusiastically welcomes South Korea’s “keen interest” in joining the latest round of TPP talks.

Meanwhile, evidence has surfaced that China is eyeing inclusion in the negotiations as well. New Zealand congressional TPP caucus member Charles Boustany said last month, “Some discussions I have had with the Chinese government indicate there is an interest in China, but there’s also an interest brewing in China about participating at some point in the TPP.”

However, China’s admittance into the TPP negotiations is far more controversial than South Korea’s since many industry experts interpret one of the principal aims of the treaty to be the strategic isolation of China, especially since it won WTO membership. According to one interpretation, the TPP aims to redraw a traditionally cloistered quarter of the Asian markets, including Singapore, Malaysia, Japan and Vietnam. China is conspicuously absent from the party.