lee48_NHAC NGUYENAFP via Getty Images_rcep signing Nhac Nguyen/AFP via Getty Images

The Limits of the RCEP

The new Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, signed last month by 15 Asia-Pacific countries, represents a firm repudiation of the protectionism that has been gaining ground in recent years. But it cannot save the multilateral trading system – and might undermine it further.

SEOUL – Last month, 15 Asia-Pacific countries signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The occasion marked what might be the most significant economic achievement since the COVID-19 crisis began. And yet the RCEP – or, indeed, Asia – cannot save the ailing multilateral trading system alone.

To be sure, the RCEP is a firm repudiation of the protectionism that has been gaining ground in recent years. Economic integration is very difficult in the Asia-Pacific, owing to widely varying levels of development, diverse cultures and institutional structures, and ongoing territorial disputes. But, confronted with the COVID-19 downturn, the parties were eager to conclude the pact, after eight years of negotiations.

And this is no minor trade bloc. Signatories include China and Japan – the world’s second- and third-largest national economies, respectively – as well as South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and ten Southeast Asian countries. The RCEP thus accounts for 30% of global GDP, making it the world’s largest free-trade area.

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