Nothing less than a major milestone in global economic history and a huge victory for China over increasing US regional hegemony has been realized on Sunday with the signing of the biggest free trade deal ever among fifteen Asia Pacific Nations.
Called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, the agreement was signed virtually during the annual summit of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and effectively establishes the world's largest trading block that is expected to encompass almost one-third of all global economic activity, crucially without the United States.
It's being further seen as a massive blow to four years of both Trump's America First policy and simultaneously the trade war and increasing attempts to convince other large regional powers like India to isolate China (though India is notably absent from the RCEP).
The trade pact involves ten ASEAN bloc member nations including Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – and additionally their trade partners Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea.
China's Premier Li Keqiang was cited in state media as hailing a "victory against protectionism" and in international media reports it is being called "a coup for China" which will bolster Chinese claims that it remains a "champion of globalization and multilateral cooperation".
"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, after it's been in negotiations for eight years.
The RCEP was initiated by ASEAN, how could it be China-led? China pursues win-win and win-for-all, but Washington sees it as China wins twice and China wins all. So, China is awesome that it wins no matter what.😀 pic.twitter.com/g3ZjxanwET— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) November 15, 2020
The AP summarized of the agreement:
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.
...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.
India was the only country invited to the table but that didn't sign the deal (and then there's Taiwan, also not part of the deal).
Yet clearly this marks the final death knell for both Obama's so-called 'pivot to Asia' and Trump's anti-Chinese decoupling initiatives. In the days leading up to the expected signing on Sunday the major American networks were noticeably quiet about it.
As The Wall Street Journal now forewarns: "The deal signed Sunday increases pressure on Mr. Biden to deepen U.S. trade engagement in the Asia-Pacific region. He warned last year that if America doesn’t write the rules of the road, China will, and said he would try to renegotiate the TPP, but hasn’t taken a firm position either way."