Despite being the largest free trade agreement (FTA) in the world, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is often criticized as a shallow FTA. In this essay, however, we contend that the RCEP is better understood in the context of the great power rivalry between the United States and China. We argue that the RCEP marks China’s rise as a shaper of trade law norms and governance mechanisms, which intensifies great power competition. On the one hand, by solidifying the world’s largest regional trading bloc, including through enacting very liberal rules of origin, the RCEP tightens ties among Asian economies and counters the efforts of the US to divert supply chains away from China. On the other hand, the inclusion of new rules on issues like e-commerce in the RCEP illustrates the potential for some cooperation between the two countries over the governance of the emerging digital economy, despite considerable challenges. The essay concludes with thoughts on the options for the new US administration in dealing with China.
Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership
More significant than trade liberalisation is the RCEP’s geopolitical statement. Initial commentary from the West has mostly misread the signal, with narratives that the RCEP is a huge economic and political win for China, that the RCEP was a China-led initiative to counter the TPP, and that the agreement provides further evidence of a rising China and a global geopolitical shift – all of which misrepresent the reality of the agreement and overstate reality.
The contributions to the symposium on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) feature essays from across the world. The topics are diverse too: some dwell on the geopolitical implications of the RCEP, some dwell on its dispute settlement chapter, while some others on issues which the text of the Agreement either ignores or deals with only perfunctorily. Despite the divergence of the views of the contributors, on some points, they broadly tend to agree. They clearly perceive the RCEP as the beginning of a growing trend where economies in the Asia-Pacific region could play a much more pivotal rule in global trade rulemaking.