Hanoi (AP) – Regardless of the trade conflict with the United States, China has signed the world’s largest free trade agreement with 14 Asian-Pacific states.
After eight years of negotiations, the signing took place on Sunday at the end of the virtual summit of the community of Southeast Asian states Asean in the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi. The “regional comprehensive economic partnership” or RCEP, as the pact is abbreviated, comprises 2.2 billion people and about a third of the world’s economic output.
The agreement lowers tariffs, establishes common trade rules, and thus also makes supply chains easier. It covers trade, services, investment, electronic commerce, telecommunications and copyright. RCEP stands for “Regional Comprehensive Economic Association”. In addition to China’s second-largest economy and the ten ASEan states, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Myanmar, Brunei, Laos and Cambodia, Japan, Australia, South Korea and New Zealand also participate.
Especially in the context of the ongoing trade war with the United States, the free trade pact is a great success for the communist leadership in Beijing. According to experts, the agreement will promote economic integration in the Asia-Pacific region and counter protectionist trends. Before the Corona crisis, the RCEP countries accounted for 29 percent of world trade volume, slightly less than the EU at 33 percent. RCEP community engagement is likely to increase, as experts expect.
“RCEP will redraw the economic and strategic map of the Indo-Pacific,” said Jeffrey Wilson of the Australian Institute for Strategic Policy (ASPI). The free trade pact is of “enormous importance”. It will also “give a boost” to efforts for an economic recovery after the pandemic.
The agreement was preceded by 31 rounds of negotiations and 18 ministerial meetings. Self-imposed deadlines were missed six times. In the end, the deal depended particularly on India, which did not want to open up that far. But when New Delhi withdrew from negotiations at the end of last year, the way was opened for agreement.
The pact constitutes a new free trade area together with the community of the other Asia-Pacific free trade agreement, the CPTPP, abbreviated as “Comprehensive and progressive agreement for a trans-Pacific partnership.” However, the CPTPP only represents 13 percent of world economic output. It remains from the most ambitious project of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) after US President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement in 2017.
Although the Asean talks only took place virtually, Trump did not attend the summit for the third year in a row. While the United States has lost weight in the Asia-Pacific region under his command, China is expanding its influence even further with the new free trade pact. RCEP is more extensive than CPTPP, but it is not as deep as experts describe. The CPTPP trans-Pacific partnership between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam has so far been ratified by seven states and comprises 480 million people.
It remains to be seen whether the United States will rejoin the trans-Pacific partnership under new President Joe Biden, which would also require congressional approval. The experts pointed out that both free trade pacts do not compete with each other and that membership is not mutually exclusive. Rather, the new RCEP agreement with China works as a complement. Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, Australia, and New Zealand belong to both.
However, the new free trade pact does not mean that all problems between trading partners have been resolved or that individual countries are not concerned about increasing dependence on China. Japan is currently reviewing its supply chains in China. There are also conflicts between Australia and China because Beijing is restricting imports from Australia due to political tensions.
However, the agreement shows that the economies of Asia and the Pacific are very skeptical about the technological and economic “decoupling” of China propagated by the United States under Trump.