Due to the pandemic, the signing of the agreement on Sunday was unusual, with separate ceremonies in each of the 15 member countries, all video-linked. The trade minister of each country took turns signing a separate copy of the pact, while its head of state or head of government stood nearby and watched. On November 15, 2020, 15 countries – members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and five regional partners – signed the Comprehensive Regional Economic Partnership (RCEP), probably the largest free trade agreement in history. The RCEP and the 2018 Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) agreement, also dominated by East Asian members, are the only major multilateral free trade agreements signed during the Trump era. Many Member States have already concluded free trade agreements, but there are restrictions. Liberal internationalists may say that “the RCEP and the CPTPP are powerful counter-examples of the overall decline in rules-based trade,” but it is wishful thinking – and at the same time an unwarranted pessimism. Tariff reduction agreements such as RCEP and CPTPP are largely harmless, but not very transformable. Nevertheless, the coronavirus pandemic stress test demonstrated the extraordinary robustness of global production networks. International supply chains have rapidly shifted from China to more regular countries such as Vietnam, Bangladesh and India. By participating in the CPTP as with Xi`s ode to the Davos trade, China can make propaganda by posing as the guardian of the rules-based international system, but the system itself is increasingly bypassing China.
This may be bad news for global trade negotiators, but it can only be good for world trade. The agreement, the Comprehensive Regional Economic Partnership (R.C.E.P., is limited in scope. Yet it has considerable symbolic weight. The pact covers more humanity – 2.2 billion people – than any previous regional free trade agreement, and could help consolidate China`s image as the dominant economic power in its neighborhood. The 2020 agreement is expected to boost the global economy by $186 billion.   Last month, 15 countries signed the Regional Economic Partnership (RCEP), an Indo-Pacific trade agreement that aimed to “create new employment opportunities, improve living standards and improve the overall well-being of their peoples.” The initial initiative of the negotiations came from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which contributes to 10 members of the partnership.