Power play entanglement misses the point of the RCEP

Illustration: Luo xuan/GT

The fate of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) may again take a fresh turn with a top Japanese negotiator saying on Friday that the country was not considering signing the free trade pact without India.

Japan has been calling on India to sit back at the negotiating table since the latter pulled out of the RCEP negotiations in early November. Although it is still hard to tell whether or not Japan would officially withdraw from the RCEP simply based on an interview with the Japanese deputy minister of economy, trade and industry, one thing is certain: Japan hopes to use the power of India to balance China‘s influence under the RCEP framework.

Whatever the motivation behind the tentative statement from the Japanese official, it is never a wise move to pour cold water on the optimism surrounding the conclusion of RCEP talks, which would reflect nothing but the limitations to their understanding of the trade deal.

The RCEP is a multilateral free trade agreement in which all participating members will gain in a mutually beneficial approach. It is not just China, but all member countries that will enjoy the dividends brought by the enhanced trade cooperation under the RCEP framework. The deal may help more Chinese products enter other RCEP members‘ markets and vice versa, and it will also see the further opening-up of the Chinese market, which will be good for Japan and other countries.

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Currently, the Chinese economy is the largest among all RCEP participating member states, and it is still growing fast with its strong manufacturing sector. As such, it is understandable for countries like India and Japan to have been upset about joining the RCEP with their most productive neighbor. From the perspective of Japan, it may be both a challenge and an opportunity, but if it withdraws from the partnership, it may risk missing an important opportunity to lift its economic and trade growth.

The perception that once the deal is signed, Chinese products will flood into other countries is either one-sided or symptomatic of paranoia. After all, China will need to abide by the same trade rules to open its market further. No one would contest that China has a huge potential market, which has long been one of the major selling points for the -proposed RCEP. Without China, the 15-member RCEP would not become the world‘s largest regional free trade agreement, covering a combined GDP of about $29 trillion, and new trade rules would be gone, further market opening-up would stall, and the global trade environment would slide further into unilateralism and protectionism.

Given the grim prospects for the global economy and trade in the coming year, there is no time to waste on delaying the RCEP. China has already made its stance clear. That is, it will continue opening-up and encouraging competition to allow more countries to benefit from its economic development. If our focus remains entangled in a geopolitical power play instead of coordinated cooperation, then no country can expect dividends from the free trade pact.

The author is a reporter with the Global Times. bizopinion.cn


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