Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc chairs the meeting at the 37th Asean Summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, November 15 2020. Picture: REUTERS/KHAM
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc chairs the meeting at the 37th Asean Summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, November 15 2020. Picture: REUTERS/KHAM

Singapore — Asia Pacific nations including China, Japan and South Korea on Sunday signed the world’s largest regional free-trade agreement, encompassing nearly a third of global population and GDP.

Top officials from 15 nations that also include Australia, New Zealand and the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) inked the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) — nearly a decade in the making — on the final day of the 37th Asean Summit hosted virtually by Vietnam.

“The completion of negotiations is a strong message affirming Asean’s role in supporting the multilateral trade system,” Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said before the virtual signing ceremony. The agreement will contribute to “developing supply chains that have been disrupted due to the pandemic as well as supporting economic recovery”, he said.

A minimum of six Asean countries in addition to three non-Asean partners must ratify RCEP for it to come into force, Singapore’s trade & industry minister Chan Chun Sing told reporters after the signing. Singapore plans to approve the deal “in the next few months”, he said.

Supporters of the trade pact, which covers 2.2-billion people with a combined GDP of $26.2-trillion, said it will bolster pandemic-weakened economies by reducing tariffs, strengthening supply chains with common rules of origin and codifying new e-commerce rules.

Among the benefits of the agreement are a tariff elimination of at least 92% on traded goods among participating countries, as well as stronger provisions to deal with nontariff measures, and enhancements in areas such as online consumer and personal information protection, transparency and paperless trading, according to a statement issued on Sunday by Singapore’s ministry of trade & industry. It includes simplified customs procedures while at least 65% of services sectors will be fully open with increased foreign shareholding limits.

Negotiators pushed the deal across the finish line after India surprised participants late in 2019 by abandoning the agreement. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he pulled out over concerns about how RCEP would affect the livelihoods of Indians, particularly the most vulnerable. India, though, will be allowed to rejoin the trade pact.

India’s difficulties

“The clause allowing India to join at a later date is symbolic and shows China’s desire to build economic bridges with the region’s third-largest economy,” said Shaun Roache, Asia Pacific chief economist at S&P Global Ratings.

Malaysia recognises the difficulties India is facing, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said in a speech on Sunday. “Nevertheless, we wish to express our continuous support and welcome its accession to RCEP in the future.”

Whether RCEP changes regional dynamics in favour of China depends on the US response, experts said. The agreement underscores how US President Donald Trump’s 2017 decision to withdraw from a different Asia Pacific trade pact — the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — diminished US ability to offer a counterbalance to China’s growing regional economic influence.

That challenge will shift to president-elect Joe Biden if, as expected, he is officially named the winner of the November 3 election. Still uncertain is how the Biden team will approach trade deals and whether it tries to re-enter the 11-nation TPP.

Nations party to the RCEP treaty see it hastening economic recoveries from the global pandemic.

Australian farmers and businesses will benefit from “better export opportunities” under the RCEP pact, its government said on Sunday. There are greater investment certainties for companies and gains for Australian providers within the financial services, education, health and engineering sectors, it said.

“Our trade policy is all about supporting Australian jobs, boosting export opportunities and ensuring an open region with even stronger supply chains,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said. “With one in five Australian jobs reliant on trade, the RCEP agreement will be crucial as Australia and the region begin to rebuild from the Covid‑19 pandemic.”

The trade agreement will help Indonesia recover from the pandemic and possibly increase its GDP by 0.05% from 2021 to 2032, trade minister Agus Suparmanto said. Citing a private study, he added that RCEP could boost exports by as much as 11% and investment by as much as 22% five years after its ratification.

Japan too is looking for the pact to be a catalyst for its postcoronavirus economy, Japanese trade minister Hiroshi Kajiyama told reporters. “Through the tariff removals, I believe there’ll be a major impact on improving Japan’s exports and making the region’s supply chains more efficient,” he said.

“I strongly believe we are building free and fair economic rules through introducing new rules on data free flows and the banning of demands for technology transfers, as well as the protection of intellectual property,” Kajiyama said.

The agreement will make exports of participating countries more competitive and create an integrated market for China and regional nations, Chan said.

“Over the past years, there have been several ups and downs and it has certainly not been an easy journey,” he said. “At one point, the prospects of concluding the agreement were shaken by geopolitical and domestic preoccupations. We have all had to make difficult trade-offs to advance the negotiations.”


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