Asia looks to China-focused RCEP trade bloc as it seeks to recover from coronavirus

The partnership is expected to boost trade within the region by 2%, or $42 billion, both through increased trade and also through diversion of trade as tariff rules change

epa08821197 A handout image of a video conference made available by the Vietnam News Agency (VNA) shows leaders and trade ministers of 15 Asia-Pacific nations posing for a virtual group photo during the 4th Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, 15 November 2020. Fifteen Asia-Pacific nations signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) on 15 November, making it the world' largest free trade deal at the end of an annual summit of Southeast Asian leaders and regional partners.  EPA/VNA HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES

Members of a China-centred Asian trade bloc that takes effect on January 1 are hoping the initiative, encompassing about a third of world trade and business activity, will help power their recoveries from the pandemic.

The 15-member Regional and Comprehensive Economic Partnership includes China, Japan, South Korea and other Asian countries. It does not include the US or India.

The deal slashes tariffs on thousands of products, streamlining trade procedures and providing mutual advantages for member nations. It also takes into account issues such as e-commerce, intellectual property and government procurement.

But it has less stringent labour and environmental requirements than those expected of countries in the EU or the smaller Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes many of the same countries, though not China.

The RCEP is expected to boost trade within the region by 2 per cent – $42 billion – both through increased trade and also the diversion of trade as tariff rules change, experts say.

The accord is a coup for China – by far the biggest market in the region, with more than 1.3 billion people.

Extra help will be needed: two years of lockdowns, border closures, mandatory quarantines and other restrictions have cost millions of people their jobs while also contributing to disruptions in manufacturing and shipping that are snarling supply chains worldwide.

Countries confronted with outbreaks of the fast-spreading Omicron coronavirus variant have reined in recent moves to reopen to international travel.

Regional economies contracted by 1.5 per cent in 2020. They’ve bounced back, with the Asian Development Bank forecasting growth at 7 per cent this year – boosted by low year-before figures. But next year growth is expected to slow to 5.3 per cent.

The pandemic slowed progress in ratifying the trade deal for some countries.

China was the first to ratify the RCEP in April, after it was signed in November 2020 at a virtual meeting of leaders from its 15 member countries. Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have yet to do so, though they are expected to ratify it soon.

Myanmar, whose government was ousted by the military on February 1, ratified the accord, but that is pending acceptance by other members.

Beijing is fully prepared for the new trading bloc, having already fulfilled 701 “binding obligations” for the RCEP, Chinese vice minister for commerce Ren Hongbin said on Thursday.

“The RCEP is of great significance building new development patterns and a milestone in opening up our economy,” Mr Ren said, according to a transcript of a news conference on the ministry’s website.

He said the block would draw member economies closer and “greatly boost confidence in economic recovery from the pandemic".

The Chinese-initiated RCEP appeals to other developing countries because it reduces barriers to trade in farm goods, manufactured goods and components, which make up most of their exports.

It says little about trade in services and access for companies to operate in each other’s economies, which the US and other developed countries want.

The RCEP originally would have included about 3.6 billion people. Minus India – which pulled out – it still covers more than two billion people and close to a third of all trade and business activity.

The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the retooled version of the North American Free Trade Agreement under former US president Donald 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 an agreement that Mr Trump rejected, also are smaller. The RCEP includes six of the 11 remaining CPTPP members.

Like any trade deal, the RCEP has its detractors.

In a recent legislative hearing shown on YouTube, government officials urged Indonesian lawmakers to pass the RCEP, one of three backlogged trade arrangements.

The RCEP will uplift GDP and lower poverty incidence. It will open up more market access for our exports and widen sourcing of needed inputs that will improve competitiveness of our manufacturing sector and exporters
Ramon Lopez, Philippines Trade and Industry Secretary

But Elly Rachmat Yasin, a member of a commission responsible for agriculture, the environment, forestry and marine affairs, questioned Trade Minister Muhammad Lutfi about the wisdom of Indonesia's involvement, noting that India opted out largely due to fears that Chinese imports would swamp its markets.

Mr Lutfi said the RCEP would help boost exports and attract extra inflows of up to $1.7 billion in foreign investment by 2040.

Philippines Trade and Industry Secretary Ramon Lopez says he expects lawmakers there to ratify the pact in January, after running out of time to get it done in December.

At that time, the government was busy dealing with the aftermath of a typhoon that struck on December 16, leaving 375 people dead and hundreds of thousands without adequate housing.

The trade bloc is expected to open many service sector jobs to workers in member countries – a big draw for countries like the Philippines that rely heavily on remittances from migrant workers.

“The RCEP will uplift GDP and lower poverty incidence. It will open up more market access for our exports and widen sourcing of needed inputs that will improve competitiveness of our manufacturing sector and exporters,” Mr Lopez said.

“There is no reason nor logic not to ratify the RCEP,” he said, adding that failing to do so would be “catastrophic” since investors would likely favour countries within the trading bloc.

Updated: January 1st 2022, 3:30 AM