CHINA IS ON the north-northwestern rim of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Yet it will be at the heart of the economic bloc that the trade agreement will cement.
RCEP is due to be signed on November 15 during the virtual twin ASEAN and East Asia Summits. The latter involves the ASEAN Plus Six — the six being China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand — and the United States and Russia. As RCEP does not include India, the United States or Russia, it will have a summit of its own, too.
The 15 RCEP members (China, the ten ASEAN nations, and the four other countries with which ASEAN has free trade agreements, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea) account for approaching 30% of the world’s gross domestic product and one-third of its population. More significantly, they will likely account for most of the world’s economic growth in the coming decades.
Whether that will make this the Asian century rather than the Chinese century in succession to the long American century, is a matter for the future. For the present, it is the world’s engine of growth that will drive the recovery of the global economy from its Covid-19-induced recession.
India withdrew from the RCEP negotiations late on, concerned about both the impact of the dismantling of regional tariffs on its farmers and Chinese imports on its manufacturers. It may return at a later date. Most ASEAN countries would welcome that. Beijing will be indifferent, especially if border tensions with India remain.
The United States was never in, pursuing the TransPacific Partnership (TPP) instead as a geopolitical counterweight to the China-led RCEP as part of President Barak Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP as soon as he took office in 2017 left its successor, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for TransPacific Partnership (CPTPP, also known as TPP-11), a pale shadow of a competitor to RCEP, especially as Beijing moved purposefully to fill the resultant vacuum.
The Trump administration’s putative Indo-Pacific economic grouping based on private sector investment and the Quadrilateral Security Grouping (the Quad: India, Japan, Australia and the United States) never amounted to anything. Many ASEAN nations are uneasy about the Quad, uncomfortable with its security and military focus that pushes them towards choosing between Washington and their neighbour who is often their main trade and investment partner.
There is talk that the prospective incoming US president, Joe Biden, might join the CPTPP, but this Bystander feels it is too late; that horse has bolted. An alternative would be for the United States to seek to join RCEP, on the better-to-be–inside-the-tent theory. That would require a US-ASEAN free trade deal first.
There is more than symbolic significance in the fact that the RCEP is being signed before the next US administration takes office, even if it will not be implemented until the second half of 2021, following ratification by the signatories.
For Beijing, RCEP is an opportunity to write regional trade rules to its advantage, and also diversify its trade at a time of both unsettled relations with the United States and an eastward shift of the global economy’s centre of gravity. A win-win.