TOKYO — Thailand is "highly likely" to seek membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) but would first need to weigh up the impact of the free-trade accord on its export-led economy, Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak said on Friday.
The US-led pact now has 12 members including Canada, Australia, Japan, Mexico and Chile, as well as four from Asean: Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. The TPP would slash tariffs in a market of 800 million people representing about 40% of the global economy.
"Thailand is highly interested in joining TPP," Mr Somkid told a news conference in Tokyo. "Chances are high that Thailand will seek to join TPP."
He said the government was analysing the impact of joining the trade deal, particularly on sensitive issues including agriculture and pharmaceuticals.
"We need to convene specialists and gain the public's understanding on these matters. We need a forum for discussion and exchanging views," he said.
Membership could be a boon for Thailand as competition heats up from rival exports and manufacturing economies including Malaysia and Vietnam, particularly in electronics, seafood and agriculture.
It could also benefit its automobile industry, which accounts for about 10% of Thai gross domestic product, and support large-scale investments in assembly plants in Thailand from Japanese carmakers including Toyota and Honda. Thailand is the largest regional production and export base for the world's top carmakers.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha also said a comprehensive study of the pact was needed. "We have to look at everything carefully before making a decision," he told reporters in Bangkok.
The TPP has been highly controversial, with critics saying that it envisions a trade and investment regime cast in the US image, obliging countries to follow US rules and benefiting large US corporations the most.
Thailand's expression of interest follows a marathon final round of talks in Atlanta that capped off six years of complex negotiations toward the biggest trade pact in a generation.
The Philippines has also signalled that it may apply for TPP membership and Indonesia's trade minister on Tuesday said his country had "no choice" but to sign up, or risk losing its competitive edge.
Failure to come onboard could hurt foreign investment flows into Thailand as TPP members would build up a supply chain within the bloc, analysts from KBank Capital Markets wrote in a report.
"Thailand will need to weigh the benefits of the TPP against domestic institutional capabilities to prepare for changes in the new era of global trade," they said.
Thailand also needs to resolve its human trafficking problem as Washington refuses to negotiate with countries in its lowest tier for its Trafficking in Persons (TIP) ranking, the report added.
The United States this year upgraded Malaysia from Tier 3 to Tier 2 in its annual TIP review. US lawmakers demanded an investigation, saying Malaysia had not done anything to justify the upgrade, and the move appeared to be a purely political decision to ensure its TPP membership.