South Korean Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki said Monday the country’s government will begin the process to join a massive Asia-Pacific free trade deal, adding it to a growing list of applicants that includes China and Taiwan.

Hong, who doubles as deputy prime minister, made the remarks at a meeting of Cabinet ministers on external economic affairs. The government is expected to submit the application for the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) after reporting the move to the nation’s parliament, among other steps.

Hong said given the situation in which China and Taiwan have applied for membership, it “has become difficult to keep the matter to discussions within government offices.”

To join the trade deal, an applicant needs the approval of all 11 existing members — Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

The South Korean government is expected to make an official bid after advancing necessary internal procedures.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in attends a news conference in Canberra on Monday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS
South Korean President Moon Jae-in attends a news conference in Canberra on Monday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison welcomed the prospect of South Korea joining the pact, after a meeting with visiting South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Monday.

“We are important trading partners and we welcome the prospect of Korea joining the CPTPP and we look forward, should they wish to take that decision and step, we look forward to being an encouraging partner,” Morrison said at a joint news conference with Moon.

Meanwhile, a Japanese government source said Tokyo needs to see if South Korea can meet high-standard free trade rules as a CPTPP member, expressing a cautious stance toward the bid.

The source also cited “various matters of concern” between the two countries, such as a dispute over wartime labor compensation and South Korea’s import restrictions on some Japanese fishery products imposed after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

In December last year, Moon expressed willingness to consider joining the pact, formally known as the CPTPP. South Korea is already a member of the 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade agreement, which will take effect on Jan. 1. The RCEP deal also includes Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand and Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states.

China and Taiwan applied for CPTPP membership in September, while Britain did so in February.

Applications from both China and Taiwan to join the deal initially designed by the U.S. to sideline Beijing have left CPTPP members scrambling to calculate the benefits — or risks — of accepting both or just one into the pact.

The United States withdrew from an earlier planned trans-Pacific trade pact under then-president Donald Trump. His successor, Joe Biden, spoke prior to his election last November about the possibility of renegotiating the deal, but has not laid out any firm plans since taking office.

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