Facebook Instagram Twitter YouTube

Fifteen Asia-Pacific Countries Sign World’s Largest Free Trade Agreement

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) was signed November 15 by 15 Asia-Pacific countries, to great fanfare in China’s pro-regime press. Currently of relatively limited economic scope, it could in the long term be a fulcrum in the fierce struggle between the major powers to conquer Asian markets.

Jean Beide

November 18, 2020
Facebook Twitter Share
Photo: AP

At a virtual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on November 15, its 10 members — along with China, South Korea, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand — ratified the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), creating the world’s largest free trade agreement. China immediately hailed it as “a victory for multilateralism and free trade,” clearly referring to the failure of the Trans-Pacific Partnership — from which China had been excluded — after the United States withdrew from it in 2017. For China specifically, this victory is both political and symbolic.

The sheer size of the agreement’s member countries, which together account for a third of the world’s population, should not mask its relatively narrow scope — at least for now. The RCEP is an initial attempt to standardize and harmonize the region’s quite heterogeneous economic areas and the multitude of treaties already in force. As noted in the Economist, when the TPP was being negotiated, “American officials would snootily dismiss RCEP as an inferior, 20th-century-style pact, focused on tariffs and rudimentary trade-facilitation measures, in contrast to the TPP, with its coverage of areas such as environmental and labour standards, and rules for state-owned enterprises.”

A Potential Long-Term Platform in the Fight for Domestic Markets

While the current agreement is more political than economic, it could serve as a platform to further integrate the Asia-Pacific region, at the expense of the United States, and serve Chinese interests in the struggle for emerging domestic markets in Southeast Asia. The ASEAN member countries have distinguished themselves by effectively managing the Covid-19 pandemic. As the Geopolitical Monitor reminds us, countries such as Vietnam are well positioned in the current economic situation. And the RCEP also brings the region’s three giants — China, Japan, and South Korea — together for the first time.

This agreement constitutes a de facto bloc that excludes the United States and India, whose relations with China’s have deteriorated, while strengthening China’s strategic and logistical partnerships with them. Moreover, according to a Peterson Institute for International Economics report (mentioned in the Economist article), the RCEP could have a greater financial impact than the TPP, generating an additional annual value of about $186 billion (compared to $147 billion for the TPP). The report also states that the benefits will be particularly significant for China, Japan, and South Korea. More importantly, the RCEP could also aid negotiations on a potential trilateral free trade agreement between the three Asian giants, one that would help them escape their current political binds.

A Significant Victory for China

In rapidly shrinking markets, the Covid-19 pandemic has made international competition even fiercer than it already was. The various capitalist powers are already beginning to battle over negotiating the economic recovery to their advantage, thus stirring up rivalries across the globe — to the detriment of the workers who are paying the full price of the crisis. The Asia-Pacific region finds itself in relatively good shape, buoyed by its more efficient management of the pandemic than North America’s and Europe’s. After four years of U.S. retreat during the Trump era, this development — even if confined for now to politics and symbolism — is a partial victory for the Chinese leadership. It is the second major agreement in the region that excludes the United States, as the Washington Post points out.

In situations of crisis, economics and politics tend to merge more sharply. The signing of the agreement and the Chinese media hype it has spurred may bode well for a deepening of China’s influence in the region, as evidenced by India’s keeping its distance from a treaty it mistrusts. In the looming global crisis, the struggle for Asian domestic markets will undoubtedly be a major component of the fundamental opposition between China and the United States, an opposition that will not disappear with Trump’s departure.

First published in French on November 16 in Révolution Permanente.

Translation by Scott Cooper

Facebook Twitter Share


The Roots of the Rebellion at Foxconn

Jenny Chan is a researcher and professor at the Polytechnic University of Hong Kong. She is co-author of the book Dying for an iPhone. She spoke with La Izquerda Diario about the causes of the rebellion by workers at the Foxconn plant in Zhengzhou, China.

Josefina L. Martínez

December 7, 2022
Participants in a memorial ceremony lay flowers to pay respect to a deceased 23-year-old worker in front of the SPC headquarters in Seoul, Thursday. She died in an accident at a baking factory in Pyeongtaek affiliated with SPC on Saturday.

How Workers and Socialists are Responding to a Workplace Death at One of South Korea’s Largest Food Manufacturers

Following a workplace death at SPC group, one of the largest food manufacturers in South Korea, a consumer boycott quickly gained traction. Organized workers and revolutionary socialists are playing a role in this struggle.

Sam Carliner

November 12, 2022
A man holds a Sri Lankan national flag during a protest outside the Parliament complex in Colombo, Sri Lanka

Protests Against Inflation and the IMF Return to Sri Lanka

Protesters, along with unions and political organizations took to the streets of Sri Lanka on Thursday, mobilizing against inflation, staggering food prices, and new IMF adjustment programs ushered in by the the illegitimate government of Wickremesinghe, which replaced Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government by mass demonstrations in July.

What’s behind the Escalations in Korea?

For the first time in five years, tensions in the Korean peninsula are escalating. This comes in the context of a U.S. military buildup in the Pacific, driven by greater capitalist competition between the United States and China.

Sam Carliner

October 7, 2022


It is Possible to Win: The Pension Reform Crisis in France

A French socialist reflects on the way forward after Macron invites Article 49.3 to pass pension reform.

Paul Morao

March 20, 2023

“We are your economy”: Trans Youth Walkout and Speak Out

The following is a speech by a young trans person as part of an action called for by NYC Youth for Trans Rights.

Tatiana Cozzarelli

March 20, 2023
Three tables full of food, with signs hung above them. One says "The People's Pantry: FREE FOOD." Banners hung from the tables say "Free CUNY" and "Cop Free School Zone"

CUNY Administration Cracks Down on Student and Worker-Run Food Pantry

Students and workers opened "The People's Pantry" seven weeks ago as part of a broader anti-austerity campaign at CUNY, leading to several direct confrontations with the administration.

Olivia Wood

March 19, 2023

Neither NATO Nor Putin: An Anti-war Program for an Anti-war Protest

The following is a flier that Left Voice distributed at the March 18 rally in DC with the anti-war program we believe we must all take up.

Left Voice

March 19, 2023