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Print Edition> World
UPDATED: November 26, 2012 NO. 48 NOVEMBER 29, 2012
RCEP Makes a Difference
Newly launched East Asian free trade talks bode well for the region and beyond
By Yu Lintao

REGIONAL RESOLVE: Leaders pose for a group photo before attending the Seventh East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh on November 20 (XINHUA)

While a few countries remained fixated over territorial disputes at the recent meetings of East Asian leaders in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, most nations are expecting broader cooperation on regional development.

Immediately after the conclusion of the Seventh East Asia Summit on November 20, leaders from 10 ASEAN nations and its six dialogue partners—China, South Korea, Japan, India, Australia and New Zealand—launched negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which officials say will allow a greater flow of goods and services and avoid a so-called "noodle bowl" of overlapping deals, even as countries in the region pursue bilateral and trilateral trade agreements. The RCEP is expected to go into effect by the end of 2015.

Critics noted that with a combined market of over 3 billion people and a combined GDP of about $20 trillion, the RCEP will become the world's biggest regional free trade area (FTA) upon its completion. The potential FTA will certainly help maintain regional competitiveness and promote global economic growth. However, with some destabilizing factors present in the region and respective concerns of involved countries, barriers still lie ahead of comprehensive economic cooperation in East Asia.

A promising deal

The plan for the RCEP was first debated at the 19th ASEAN Summit in November 2011. Current world economic recovery efforts continue to be seriously challenged by the volatile global financial and economic situation. East Asian economies, which overly rely on trade with developed nations, have been jeopardized by the debt-laden Europe and the economically wobbling United States.

As the global trade environment continues to deteriorate, regional economic integration has become a better choice of ASEAN and its dialogue partners. The RCEP is therefore again on the agenda for leaders of regional countries to ease their reliance on the struggling West.

"At present, regional integration is accelerating worldwide. In the face of challenges posed by the current financial crisis, no country can stand alone. Cooperation and integration are the better choices," said Xu Liping, a research fellow on Southeast Asian studies with the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. To a certain degree, the RCEP could be seen as the prototype of an Asian FTA, Xu added.

In fact, ASEAN has already established five FTAs respectively with China, South Korea, Japan, India and Australia-New Zealand.

However, Xu Ningning, Executive Secretary General of the Chinese Secretariat of the China- ASEAN Business Council, said the RCEP has key differences from other trade agreements between ASEAN and its partners.

"The RCEP is aimed at attaining a comprehensive and mutually beneficial economic partnership agreement that involves deeper engagement than existing ASEAN FTAs," said Xu.

According to Xu, besides establishing a higher-quality FTA in the region, the RCEP is also expected to help further entrench ASEAN centrality, which is challenged by the economic cooperation arrangements rapidly evolving in the region including the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the prospective trilateral FTA among China, Japan and the South Korea.

"ASEAN would play a leading role in promoting the RCEP, which also aims to help the organization exert a bigger influence and acquire a greater say in the international arena. It will optimize ASEAN to be a more coherent economic bloc and resolve the 'noodle bowl' effect caused by the many current Asian trade agreements," Xu said.

"Compared with the TPP, the RCEP is more easily accepted," Xu said. The TPP requires a deeper extent of opening up while the RCEP is likely to adopt a gradual path in opening up member nations' markets given that development gaps remain.

According to Xu, the RCEP is based on open accession, which would enable any of the ASEAN FTA partners to participate either from the outset or when they are ready to join at a later date. The arrangement is also open to other external economic partners.

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