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Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau, pictured in the city of Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank.MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/Reuters

The Canadian government won’t offer any public support for applications by either Taiwan or China to join a Trans-Pacific trade agreement, saying it’s up to the 11-member pact to jointly decide on new admissions.

The People’s Republic of China has created a dilemma for Western and Asian countries in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a trade deal signed in 2018 that was originally conceived as a counterweight to Beijing’s influence in the Asia-Pacific region. Originally titled the Trans-Pacific Partnership, then-U.S. president Donald Trump withdrew his country, a major driver of the deal, after he assumed office in 2017.

By applying for membership in the CPTPP earlier this month, China leapfrogged ahead of Taiwan, a self-governing island Beijing claims as part of its territory, which had been preparing an application. Taiwan had seen joining as a way to counter China’s efforts to diplomatically isolate it. Days after China announced its request to join on Sept. 16, Taiwan formally announced it also wants membership.

China is unlikely to win membership, trade analysts said Thursday, but its application also ensures that Taiwan probably will not be accepted, because Western and Asian countries would be loath to admit Taipei while rejecting Beijing. “It’s hard for me to see a scenario where Taiwan gets in before China,” said Mark Warner, a trade lawyer who formerly worked for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Ontario government.

Japan, which under then-prime minister Shinzo Abe was a forceful proponent of the Trans-Pacific trade deal, publicly welcomed Taiwan’s application on Thursday. According to Japan’s Kyodo News service, Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu described Taiwan as an “extremely important partner of Japan” that shares basic values such as the rule of law. He said CPTPP members would have to ensure Taiwan meets the standards necessary for membership, but his reaction was warmer than Japan’s response to China’s application.

Earlier this month, after China announced its application, Japanese Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said it would be necessary to determine whether the Chinese can meet the trade deal’s “extremely high standards.”

Beijing’s frosty response to U.S. initiatives could lead to more confrontation

Canada must not by cowed by China’s pressure

Ottawa recently conducted formal public consultations with Canadians on expanding the CPTPP and which economies they might support joining the pact. In a report, the department of Global Affairs said Taiwan ranked second behind Thailand as the potential candidate mentioned most in feedback from businesses and Canadians.

But on Thursday, the Canadian government declined to support either China or Taiwan. It said any admissions would be a group decision by pact members.

“All decisions are made by consensus, and any country that joins CPTPP must meet and comply with the high standard rules and ambitious market access commitments of the CPTPP,” Lama Khodr, a spokeswoman for the department of Global Affairs, said in an e-mailed statement.

Beijing has long tried to isolate Taiwan from the international community, including denying it the chance to participate in global bodies such as the World Health Organization’s regular assemblies. Over the past 20 years, China has had considerable success in persuading countries that recognized Taiwan as a sovereign country to cut ties. In 2000, Taiwan had official diplomatic relations with 29 member states of the United Nations, as well as the Holy See. Today, the number has dropped to 15.

Analysts said China’s bid appears to be an attempt, at least in part, to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its allies.

“They made this application, I believe, to sow mischief, and that’s putting it mildly,” Lawrence Herman, an international trade expert at Herman & Associates and a senior fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute.

Beijing applied to join the trade deal only one day after strongly criticizing a new defence pact, AUKUS, signed by the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, that will provide Canberra with nuclear submarine technology and long-range missiles in an effort to match Chinese power in the Indo-Pacific region. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the alliance risked “severely damaging regional peace.”

China’s bid to join the CPTPP would also be complicated by the heavy involvement of state-owned enterprises in its economy, as well as by rules in the renegotiated NAFTA, now called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which effectively gives Washington a veto over trade deals that Canada or Mexico sign with non-market economies, a category that would include China.

“It will give a chance for the Americans to say, ‘We really don’t want you to do this,’ ” Mr. Warner said.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, meanwhile, has said it could take the opportunity to negotiate entry for itself into the CPTPP.

With files from Reuters

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