RCEP free trade deal signed among 15 participating countries

Monday, 16 Nov, 2020

Fifteen Asia-Pacific countries on Sunday signed the world's biggest free trade deal, seen as a huge coup for China in extending its influence.

With China and 14 other Asia-Pacific nations signing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) on November 15, India's withdrawal from the world's largest free trade bloc is hinting at an economic divide in the region.

The signing of the pact shows that all members are committed to cutting down tariffs, opening up markets and reducing barriers of standards, which sends a strong signal against unilateralism and protectionism, and effectively supports free trade and the multilateral trading system, said the vice commerce minister.

Leaders hope that the agreement will help to spur recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. Singapore plans to approve the deal "in the next few months", he said.

That deal, called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), was on track to be the world's biggest trade pact, until Washington pulled the plug, saying it funnelled off USA jobs.

India did not return to the negotiation despite request from the RCEP members who have discussed the trade pact for almost eight years.

RCEP talks began in 2012.

"In addition, RCEP will promote, facilitate and protect the investment climate of participating countries within the region".

In fact, the summary of the agreement leaves a special exception for India to join the pact later.

The agreement, signed virtually, creates the largest trading bloc in the world and includes about a third of global economic activity.

Malaysia recognises the difficulties India is facing, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said in a speech on Sunday.

Whether RCEP changes regional dynamics in favour of China depends on the U.S. response, experts said. China will now have greater scope to shape the region's trade rules, thanks to the partnership, which groups the 10 member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, with Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and China.

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

Al Jazeera said the US is absent from RCEP and the 11-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal that US President Donald Trump pulled out of shortly after taking office.

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.

"The trade pact marks a new milestone in regional economic integration in East Asia", Chinese Vice Commerce Minister Wang Shouwen told reporters Sunday afternoon in Beijing. This will encourage firms to invest more in the region, including building supply chains and services, and to generate jobs. The goal is to increase rules-based economic interaction among the members.

Lopez clarified, however, that while the wider free trade agreement improves levels of market access among RCEP Participating Countries, it still provides flexibilities, through the exclusion list, for the Philippines' sensitive products, which are mostly agricultural products.

"It's a chance to wrap up in one agreement that exist in several".