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Editorial : Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership

【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 However, the memberships of the RCEP and the TPP (now renamed CPTPP as the US has withdrawn) actually overlap, as countries such as Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore have joined both unions.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.

明報社評2020.06.29:RCEP年內締約 成效如何尚待觀察

由東盟10國與中國、日本、韓國、澳洲和新西蘭共15國組成的區域全面經濟伙伴關係協定(RCEP)上周二透過視訊召開第10次部長級會議,會後發表的聯合聲明稱,各項談判已取得實質進展,一致決定落實年內簽署協定。對於去年退出談判的印度,聲明表示RCEP將對其「保持開放」,暗示將不再「等埋印度」。RCEP將形成全球最大的自由貿易區,對於因新冠疫情而嚴重受損的世界經濟和產業鏈,將是一劑強心針。不過,由於其涵蓋的經濟體眾多,制度體系多元,締約後能否真正克服地緣政治因素,達到預期中的「加乘效應」,仍有待觀察。

RCEP是於2011年由東盟10國發起,邀請中、日、韓、澳、紐、印6國參與,於2012年底10+6正式開始談判。在西方輿論眼中,被視為由中國主導的一個超大型自貿區,曾經被視為與美國為首的跨太平洋伙伴協定(TPP)相抗衡。不過,由於RCEP與TPP(在美國退出後現已更名為CPTPP)成員國多有重疊,如日本、澳洲、新西蘭、越南、馬來西亞、新加坡等國均加入了兩個協定,成員國家亦不認同RCEP由中國主導,如日本就聲稱主導談判,東盟也一直扮演重要角色,今次部長級會議,就是由東盟輪值主席國越南主持。

10+6(包括印度)的RCEP涵蓋全球35億人口,國民生產總值(GDP)之和達23萬億美元,佔全球GDP總量的三分之一。但在去年11月曼谷東盟峰會談判已接近尾聲之際,印度因擔心協議可能令中日韓等國商品和服務衝擊其國內市場,宣布退出談判,而日本、澳洲等國又希望「等埋印度」,協定的最終簽署被推遲到今年。而即使減去印度的13億人口、2.9萬億美元GDP,RCEP依然是世界最大的自貿區。

RCEP談判歷時8年,其間各成員國之間已經達成了多項雙邊或多邊的自由貿易協定(FTA),例如同為CPTPP成員的前述6國,而中國已分別與韓國、澳洲、新西蘭簽署了自貿協定。中國與東盟早於2002年就簽署了《東盟-中國全面經濟合作框架協議》(ACFTA),2004年ACFTA「早期收穫計劃」啟動,2010年ACFTA全面啟動,2015年ACFTA升級版議定書簽署,目前,中國與東盟之間逾九成商品已是零關稅。因此,RCEP的締約,可謂水到渠成,瓜熟蒂落。

■Glossary生字

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

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