ASEAN, China, Other Partners Sign World’s Biggest Trade Pact

November 16, 2020by Elaine Kurtenbach, AP Business Writer
This image made from a teleconference provided by the Vietnam News Agency (VNA) shows the leaders and trade ministers of 15 Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) countries pose for a virtual group photo in Hanoi, Vietnam on Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020. China and 14 other countries have agreed to set up the world’s largest trading bloc, encompassing nearly a third of all economic activity, in a deal many in Asia are hoping will help hasten a recovery from the shocks of the pandemic. (VNA via AP)

China and 14 other countries agreed Sunday to set up the world’s largest trading bloc, encompassing nearly a third of all economic activity, in a deal many in Asia are hoping will help hasten a recovery from the shocks of the pandemic.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, was signed virtually on Sunday on the sidelines of the annual summit of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

“I am delighted to say that after eight years of hard work, as of today, we have officially brought RCEP negotiations to a conclusion for signing,” said host country Vietnam’s prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc.

“The conclusion of RCEP negotiation, the largest free trade agreement in the world, will send a strong message that affirms ASEAN’s leading role in supporting the multilateral trading system, creating a new trading structure in the region, enabling sustainable trade facilitation, revitalizing the supply chains disrupted by COVID-19 and assisting the post-pandemic recovery,” Phuc said.

The accord will take already low tariffs on trade between member countries still lower, over time, and is less comprehensive than an 11-nation trans-Pacific trade deal that President Donald Trump pulled out of shortly after taking office.

Apart from the 10 ASEAN members, it includes China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, but not the United States. Officials said the accord leaves the door open for India, which dropped out due to fierce domestic opposition to its market-opening requirements, to rejoin the bloc.

It will take time to fully assess exact details of the agreement encompassing tariff schedules and rules for all 15 countries involved — the tariffs schedule just for Japan is 1,334 pages long.

It is not expected to go as far as the European Union in integrating member economies but does build on existing free trade arrangements.

The deal has powerful symbolic ramifications, showing that nearly four years after Trump launched his “America First” policy of forging trade deals with individual countries, Asia remains committed to multi-nation efforts toward freer trade that are seen as a formula for future prosperity.

Ahead of Sunday’s RCEP “special summit” meeting, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said he would firmly convey his government’s support for “broadening a free and fair economic zone, including a possibility of India’s future return to the deal, and hope to gain support from the other countries.”

The accord is also a coup for China, by far the biggest market in the region with more than 1.3 billion people, allowing Beijing to cast itself as a “champion of globalization and multilateral cooperation” and giving it greater influence over rules governing regional trade, Gareth Leather, senior Asian economist for Capital Economics, said in a report.

China’s official Xinhua News Agency quoted Premier Li Keqiang hailing the agreement as a victory against protectionism, in remarks delivered via a video link.

“The signing of the RCEP is not only a landmark achievement of East Asian regional cooperation, but also a victory of multilateralism and free trade,” Li said.

The agreement is expected to help China, Japan and South Korea finally reach a trilateral free trade deal after years of struggling to bridge their differences.

Now that Trump’s opponent Joe Biden has been declared president-elect, the region is watching to see how U.S. policy on trade and other issues will evolve.

Analysts are skeptical Biden will push hard to rejoin the trans-Pacific trade pact or to roll back many of the U.S. trade sanctions imposed on China by the Trump administration given widespread frustration with Beijing’s trade and human rights records, and accusations of spying and technology theft.

Critics of free trade agreements say they tend to encourage companies to move manufacturing jobs overseas. So, having won over disaffected rust-belt voters in Michigan and western Pennsylvania in the Nov. 3 election, Biden is “not going to squander that by going back into TPP,” Michael Jonathan Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said in a web seminar.

But given concerns over China’s growing influence, Biden is likely to seek much more engagement with Southeast Asia to protect U.S. interests, he said.

The fast-growing and increasingly affluent Southeast Asian market of 650 million people has been hit hard by the pandemic and is urgently seeking fresh drivers for growth.

RCEP originally would have included about 3.6 billion people and encompassed about a third of world trade and global GDP. Minus India, it still covers more than 2 billion people and close to a third of all trade and business activity.

The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, the retooled version of the North American Free Trade Agreement under Trump, covers slightly less economic activity but less than a tenth of the world’s population. The EU and Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, the revised version of the deal Trump rejected, also are smaller. RCEP includes six of the 11 remaining CPTPP members.

India balked at exposing its farmers and factories to more foreign competition. Among other concerns, Indian dairy farmers are worried about competition from New Zealand and Australian milk and cheese producers. Automakers fear imports from across the region. But overall the biggest fear is over a flood of manufactured goods from China.

Trade and investment flows within Asia have vastly expanded over the past decade, a trend that has accelerated amid feuding between the U.S. and China, which have imposed billions of dollars’ worth of punitive tariffs on each other’s exports.

The RCEP agreement is loose enough to stretch to fit the disparate needs of member countries as diverse as Myanmar, Singapore, Vietnam and Australia. Unlike the CPTPP and EU, it does not establish unified standards on labor and the environment or commit countries to open services and other vulnerable areas of their economies.

But it does set rules for trade that will facilitate investment and other business within the region, Jeffrey Wilson, research director at the Perth USAsia Center, said in a report for the Asia Society.

“RCEP, therefore, is a much-needed platform for the Indo-Pacific’s post-COVID recovery,” he wrote.

ASEAN members include Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam.

___

Associated Press writers Hau Dinh in Hanoi, Vietnam, and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.

In The News

Health

Voting

Trade

Congress Searches for Way to Make Supply Chains Resilient
Economy
Congress Searches for Way to Make Supply Chains Resilient
July 15, 2021
by Tom Ramstack

WASHINGTON -- The Senate continued its search Thursday for ways to prevent the kind of devastation brought to U.S. supply chains by COVID-19. Industry executives told a Senate panel the pandemic exposed U.S. dependence on foreign suppliers to keep the lights on for their businesses. As... Read More

‘Work on This Agreement is Never Going to be Finished,’ Tai Says of USMCA
Trade
‘Work on This Agreement is Never Going to be Finished,’ Tai Says of USMCA
July 1, 2021
by Kate Michael

WASHINGTON — At the one-year anniversary of the USMCA trade agreement coming into force, trade representatives from the United States, Mexico, and Canada are patting themselves on the back for a job well done. They have good reason, as the treaty happened during a challenging time... Read More

Princess Reema bint Bandar Says American Childhood Prepared Her for Ambassadorship
Political News
Princess Reema bint Bandar Says American Childhood Prepared Her for Ambassadorship
June 1, 2021
by Kate Michael

WASHINGTON — Her Royal Highness Princess Reema bint Bandar remembers DC’s cicadas. In fact, she says she lived through the “cicada invasion” twice during her “non-diplomatic, but highly socially-connected” childhood in Northern Virginia while her father served as Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States from... Read More

US Advances First USMCA Dispute Panel Over Canadian Dairy Practices
Trade
US Advances First USMCA Dispute Panel Over Canadian Dairy Practices
May 25, 2021
by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON - The United States has requested the first ever dispute panel to settle a trade conflict under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai announced Tuesday. The United States is challenging Canada’s allocation of dairy tariff-rate quotas, specifically the set-aside of a percentage... Read More

Tai Dedicates First Speech as USTR to Greening of U.S. Trade Policy
Trade
Tai Dedicates First Speech as USTR to Greening of U.S. Trade Policy
April 19, 2021
by Kate Michael

WASHINGTON — On March 17, 2021, Ambassador Katherine Tai was confirmed as U.S Trade Representative by unanimous vote in the Senate. Just a month later, in her first speech as USTR, Tai explained how the benefits of global trade could work as a powerful incentive for... Read More

Defense Department Seeks Comments on Supply Chain Risks for Critical Materials
Defense
Defense Department Seeks Comments on Supply Chain Risks for Critical Materials
April 15, 2021
by TWN Staff

WASHINGTON - The Defense Department is seeking comments on risks to the supply chain for strategic and critical materials. In February, President Joe Biden signed an executive order directing the Defense Department and three other federal agencies to closely examine America’s supply chains in four critical... Read More

News From The Well
scroll top