The Regional Comprehensive Economics Partnership (RCEP) is a trade pact that could change the global trade equation over the next decade. It is an example of multilateralism and free trade that could leave the United States in the dust.
The 15 nations that comprise RCEP represent about one third of the world’s population (2.2 billion people), and 29% of global gross domestic product. The partnership is made up of ten Southeast Asian countries, as well as South Korea, China, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. The RCEP is officially the world’s largest trading bloc.
What makes this trade deal noteworthy, apart from its size, is the inclusion of China. In the past, China, while signing numerous bilateral trade agreements, has refrained from joining a multilateral trade pact—until now. Getting there required eight years of negotiations. The deal could have been even larger, if India, which had been part of the negotiations, had signed.
Since the agreement is expected to eliminate tariffs on a wide range of imports throughout the next 20 years, India was worried that lower tariffs could hurt some of their more inefficient producers. Nonetheless, RCEP members are extending an open invitation to India in the event that it changes its mind.
Most of the member countries already have free trade agreements with each other. What makes RCEP unique is that it defines new rules of origin on imported products among members. Before this deal, if a product happened to have parts made by a country that was outside of a free trade agreement between two countries, then those parts would likely be subject to tariffs. Imagine, for example, if a Chinese-made automobile exported to Indonesia had several parts manufactured from countries that were not part of a free-trade agreement between China and Indonesia. Indonesia would be able to levy tariffs on all those non-exempt parts, which can get really complicated. The RCEP eliminates that issue.
If you are an RCEP member, as long as the product parts are made by another RCEP-member nation, the product will receive the same tariff treatment. The hidden benefit here is that now the RCEP trade bloc will be incentivized to look within their trade group for suppliers.
The Peterson Institute for International Economics believes the trade pact could generate as much as $186 billion yearly over the next decade and tack on 0.2% in growth to the GDP of each member state. Some economists believe that the North Asian countries–China, Japan, and South Korea–could benefit the most from RCEP. However, it will take some time before all the member states ratify the agreement. In some countries that suffer from anti-free trade or anti-China sentiment, ratification of the pact may take time.
The agreement is bigger than both the U.S. North Atlantic trade agreement with Mexico and Canada, as well as the European Union’s trade pact. In contrast, for the last four years the U.S., under the direction of our president, has largely retreated from inking large multinational trade deals. In fact, we have done just the opposite by raising tariffs, while pursuing a policy of isolationism. I am not sure that a new president, regardless of party, could alter this trade trend. I don’t know what it would take to convince a divided American populace that there will be far-reaching consequences of our actions.
America’s withdrawal from free trade has left a void, which other nations (especially China) are all too happy to fill. We pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), for example, which was an even broader agreement than the RCEP, largely because of what the nation perceived was China’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region. We continue to isolate when even our trading partners like the European Union understand that, in a world ravaged by the coronavirus, new trade agreements (not less) are vitally important to economic recovery.
But the U.S. seems intent on fighting the pandemic battle alone, while scrambling for ways to rebuild the economy amid a crumbling national infrastructure, without going into more debt. Do we really have the resources necessary to go it alone on the world trade front?