In a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai dated October 5, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) called on Tai "to use tools available under the USMCA to stop China’s admission to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP)."

The letter starts with Cotton saying he is writing "to express my concerns about China’s interest in joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP)," as China "reportedly sent a formal notice on September 16th to New Zealand requesting to join the pact." Cotton then says that "China’s entry into the CPTPP would reward the state-sponsored theft and economic coercion that has been a hallmark of the Chinese Communist Party," and argues that "[m]arket economies should decouple themselves from communist China, not encourage Beijing’s malign behavior with more market access."

Cotton tells Tai that she is "in a position to take action," because "the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USCMA) includes a provision that requires any member of the USMCA to notify the other members if they intend to enter into free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations with 'non-market' economies" and "allows USMCA parties to terminate the agreement within six months if any member enters into an FTA with a non-market economy." He then states: "The United States should use the leverage we negotiated in USMCA to encourage our trading partners to reject China’s application and to support them in resisting any pressure tactics China may employ against them." And he "urge[s] [Tai] to remind Canada and Mexico of their obligations under the USMCA," and "request[s] that [she] notify them that the United States will use all mechanisms available to us in the USMCA to ensure China not be allowed to join the CPTPP."

Finally, he notes that, "on October 4th, during a question-and-answer session at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, you were asked, 'are you going to block China joining the CPTPP?'" On this point, he said, "[w]hile you refrained from directly answering the question at that time, I request that you clearly state your position in your response to this letter."

As a brief comment on Cotton's letter, two points are worth noting in relation to the substantive issues that Cotton raises. First, on the issue of USMCA Article 32.10, Cotton may be giving it greater prominence than it deserves. It is certainly true that the Biden administration could pressure Canada and Mexico, but that would be the case regardless of Article 32.10. And as we explained in an earlier piece:

Paragraphs 2, 3, and 4 of Article 32.10 outline the obligations of notification and the provision of information when a party negotiates a free trade agreement with China. Paragraph 2 of the provision states that “[a]t least 3 months prior to commencing negotiations, a Party shall inform the other Parties of its intention to commence free trade agreement negotiations with a non-market country.” This notification provision is not likely to impose much of a burden. Paragraphs 3 and 4 then require information to be provided as follows: “3. Upon request of another Party, a Party intending to commence free trade negotiations with a non-market country shall provide as much information as possible regarding the objectives for those negotiations. 4. As early as possible, and no later than 30 days before the date of signature, a Party intending to sign a free trade agreement with a non-market country shall provide the other Parties with an opportunity to review the full text of the agreement, including any annexes and side instruments, in order for the Parties to be able to review the agreement and assess its potential impact on this Agreement. …”

The more significant provision here is paragraph 5, which says: “Entry by a Party into a free trade agreement with a non-market country will allow the other Parties to terminate this Agreement on six months’ notice and replace this Agreement with an agreement as between them (bilateral agreement).”

In theory, this provision gives the United States some power over Canada and Mexico in terms of whether they support China’s accession. A Taiwanese official raised the possibility that the United States would use the provision to push Canada and Mexico to block the accession, stating: “If that clause applies to multilateral free-trade agreements such as the CPTPP — which Mexico and Canada are members of — that might be cause for the two countries to oppose China’s membership.” In practice, however, the impact may not be very significant, especially in the short term. The authorization for the United States to terminate the USMCA comes only upon China’s “entry” into the CPTPP, which is a long way off at this point.

In addition, given Canada's recent tensions with China and questions for Mexico about competing with Chinese imports, it is not clear whether U.S. intervention would have a noticeable impact on either country's position.

As for the CSIS Q & A, the exchange on this point was as follows:

Mr. Reinsch: ... Are you going to try to block China’s joining the CPTPP?

Amb. Tai: So when you say U.S. engagement coincides with China’s application, China just applied a week or two ago. The United States has been engaged, has been deeply invested in the Asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific for a very long time. So, you know, what I would say is we care deeply about the partners in that region of the world, in particular because I think that competitive pressures on them are, because of geography, particularly acute.

On this same issue, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has previously said, “as it relates to China’s interest in joining, we’d leave it to those countries to, certainly, determine.” So far, the Biden administration has been pretty clear that it does not see a need to take a public stance against China's application, and Cotton's demands here may not have much effect.