【明報專訊】THE Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which comprises 15 countries including the ten ASEAN nations, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, convened its 10th ministerial meeting through a video conference last Tuesday. The joint statement published after the meeting said that concrete progress had been made in every negotiation, and there was unanimous consensus that an agreement should be signed by the end of this year. As for India, which withdrew from the negotiations last year, the joint statement said that the door remained open for the country, implying that it would not wait for India. The RCEP will become the biggest free trade zone in the world. It will be a shot in the arm for the world economy and world supply chain, which have been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, as the RCEP is made up of numerous economies and has a rich diversity of systems and institutions, it remains to be seen whether the geopolitical factor can be overcome after the agreement is signed so as to achieve the expected synergy.
The RCEP was initiated by the ten ASEAN nations in 2011. China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India were invited, and the ASEAN+6 nations began negotiations in late 2012. The western world views the union as a mega free trade zone led by China, and it was once regarded as an answer to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was led by the US. However, the memberships of the RCEP and the TPP (now renamed CPTPP as the US has withdrawn) actually overlap, as countries such as Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore have joined both unions. Furthermore, some RCEP member states do not agree that the union is led by China. Japan, for instance, claims to be leading the talks, while ASEAN has also played an important role. The latest ministerial meeting, for example, was held by Vietnam, the current chair of ASEAN.
If India were included, the RCEP would be an ASEAN+6 union of a total population of 3.5 billion people and an aggregate GDP of 23 trillion US dollars. That would account for one third of the world's GDP in total. But last November, when the ASEAN summit in Bangkok was drawing to an end, India announced its withdrawal from the negotiations amid worries about the impact of products and services from China, Japan and South Korea on its domestic markets after the signature of the agreement. As countries such as Japan and Australia wanted to wait for India, the signature of the deal was postponed until this year. However, even if India's population (1.3 billion people) and GDP (2.9 trillion US dollars) are excluded, the RCEP will still be the biggest free trade zone in the world.
RCEP negotiations have gone on for eight years. During that period of time, its member states reached a number of bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements (FTAs). One example is the six countries which, as mentioned earlier, are also member states of the CPTPP. China has also signed free trade agreements with South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. As early as in 2002, China signed the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area (ACFTA) agreement with ASEAN. The ACFTA's Early Harvest Programme was kickstarted in 2004 and fully implemented in 2010. In 2015, an upgraded ACFTA agreement was signed. As of today, more than 90% of commodities traded between China and ASEAN are exempt from customs duties. Therefore, time is ripe for the signing of the RCEP.
comprise : to have sb / sth as parts or members
a shot in the arm : sth that gives sb / sth the help or encouragement they need
ripe : ready or suitable for sth to happen