The world's biggest trade agreement was signed on Sunday. Leaders from Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea, and the 10 members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations put pen to paper in a virtual conference to launch the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which will represent 30 per cent of global gross domestic product and – at 2.2 billion people – 30 per cent of the world's population.
It could have been even bigger. India was to join, too, but pulled out last year amid fears that membership of RCEP would mean it was unable to protect some domestic industries from being undercut by cheaper imports. Nevertheless, it is a big deal, both figuratively and literally, and long awaited; it was originally predicted to be signed as long as two years ago, but negotiations dragged on. An urgent need to repair pandemic-hit economies may have pushed the pact over the line, as it is expected to add around $140 billion to the global economy, and reducing or eliminating tariff barriers and standardising other procedures should provide a lift to the GDP of all signatory states.
The signing of RCEP – it will still have to be ratified by member countries – is being presented by many as a big win for China and a sign of how America's influence in the region is diminishing. It is certainly true that the US is not a member. Neither is it in the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP, a much more ambitious agreement signed by 11 Asia-Pacific countries, which is a new version of one of former US president Barack Obama's signature trade initiatives – quite possibly the reason why President Donald Trump, his successor, withdrew from the original partnership in one his very first actions in office.
Mr Trump has not helped perceptions of his administration by tapping, once again, his National Security Adviser, Robert O’Brien, to represent him at the East Asia Summit, the Asean-hosted event at which RCEP was signed. Asean states, which are used to the presence of heads of government at this flagship regional gathering, were unimpressed when Mr O’Brien was sent along before. As this year’s event requires no travelling, that no one more senior could have sat down in Washington to participate via video camera was seen as even more of a snub.
This may all seem to fit the narrative of China gaining, and America losing, influence. What many commentators fail to mention, either from ignorance or, more likely, an insistence on viewing all news about China as a “win” or a “lose” in a zero-sum competition with the US, is that RCEP has not been a Beijing-led process. It was from the start an Asean initiative – as its Secretary General, Lim Jock Hoi, is keen to make clear. “The signing of the RCEP agreement is a historic event as it underpins Asean’s role in leading a multilateral trade agreement of this magnitude, despite global and regional challenges and eight years of negotiations,” he said after the signing on Sunday.
Asean – a regional association that consists of more than 650 million people, which is collectively expected to be the world's fourth largest economy by 2050, if not 2030 – is rarely given sufficient credit, either for what it does or for the potential it represents. But many observers are so keen to see the wider area as a battleground over which China and the US will fight for supremacy, they not only ignore the fact that most states don't wish to take sides (as I've written before), but they seem to deny agency to all those countries that are not one of those two giants.
Just as RCEP was an Asean achievement, so the CPTPP was completed with neither China nor the US as a signatory. As Evan Feigenbaum, vice president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in an essay a couple of months ago: “This could be a model in other areas as Asia’s capable, sizeable, and self-interested players increasingly step up in fluid, issue-based coalitions.”
Noting that both the US and China are perceived as having tried to corral individual nations to their “side”, and that the two have failed to co-operate fruitfully in the greatest public health crisis for generations, Mr Feigenbaum continued: “Asia’s players may seek to define their own terms of engagement. As with the CPTPP, this co-ordination could in turn leave out Beijing, Washington, or both if they threaten to become spoilers of meaningful action. It could ultimately be these other Asian players that write the rules of their region’s future.”
I am not sure I would go so far as that conclusion, but it is one that should not be discounted; and at the moment it is barely being considered.
Another problem with framing RCEP as a victory for China is that, while the pact may be viewed positively by Beijing, it is not an attempt to exclude the US. It is in keeping with Asean’s long-term commitment to open regionalism and regional integration. If that leads in the longer term to a more “Asian Asia”, then that is a concept that can draw on many historical wellsprings, from centuries of cross-continental trading and equally enriching cultural interactions, to the experience of being colonised by European powers, and developing world solidarity.
I end with three points to consider. Firstly, RCEP is not part of some Chinese plan to dominate Asia and then the world. Secondly, the laurels for its signing should go to Asean, a far more successful regional grouping than is widely recognised. And thirdly, the US needs to commit and participate if it wants to be taken seriously in the Asia-Pacific – and that means economically, as part of agreements like the CPTPP, not just in terms of its security presence.
If, next time there is an important regional gathering, President-elect Joe Biden shows up himself, that would be a good start. “Welcome back" would be the greeting from almost everyone present.
Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National