RCEP to give momentum to virus-hit world economy: experts

â–²Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets with diplomatic envoys of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries in Beijing, capital of China, Nov. 8, 2020. (Xinhua/Yin Bogu)

 The signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the world’s largest free trade agreement (FTA), will give strong momentum to the development of the world’s COVID-19-battered economy and cement regional cooperation within East Asia, which has emerged strongest from the pandemic, observers predicted, noting that China, with its economic and market size, will play a driving role in this partnership, yet every member will benefit equally under such framework. 

Apart from the economic recovery, public health cooperation as well as the South China Sea issue are likely to be addressed during the leaders’ meetings on East Asian cooperation from Thursday to Sunday, experts predicted. They also said that the US is and will still be the region’s “biggest meddler” no matter who takes office in the White House, but there will be less close-range conflicts threatening regional stability if Joe Biden assumes office, and the region’s willingness of cooperation won’t be disrupted by any outside factors. ASEAN has become China’s largest trading partner this year, and China’s investment into this bloc has increased 70 percent in the first three quarters in 2020, compared with the same period last year, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said via video conference when attending the 23rd China-ASEAN (10+1) leaders’ meeting on Thursday. 

China and ASEAN were among the first to open “fast tracks” and “green lanes” to facilitate flows of people and goods and support economic recovery, Li said.

Li stressed that China and ASEAN working in concert has been a key underlying factor behind the strong momentum of China-ASEAN cooperation and its important role in ensuring regional peace, stability, development and prosperity.

The Chinese premier said China-ASEAN cooperation is open, inclusive and delivers benefits to both sides.

With regard to the cooperation to fight against the pandemic, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui said at a press conference on Thursday that leaders from ASEAN countries highly appreciate China’s progress on vaccine, and hope to join hands with China on R&D of COVID-19 vaccines. 

Chinese observers predicted positive outcome of the meetings, including announcement of the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework, a public health management mechanism within members, and most importantly, the signing of the RCEP. 

Negotiations in all fields related to the RCEP have been completed, and legal review of all paperwork has been finished. All parties involved are working to get the pact signed during the leaders’ meeting, Assistant Minister of Commerce Li Chenggang told a press conference on Wednesday. 

The signing of the RCEP will create a huge trade potential for the whole Asia-Pacific region, as it covers the world’s most vibrant markets, China and ASEAN countries, who also emerged the strongest from the pandemic, Zhang Jianping, director of the Institute for West Asia and Africa under the Ministry of Commerce, told the Global Times. 

Every economic crisis will push forward the regional integration further, as all members within this bloc need to stick together to shield from outside threats, according to Zhang, who believes strengthening regional cooperation against the backdrop of COVID-19 is a practical need for China and other East Asian countries for now.

Yet the signing of the RCEP, the world’s largest FTA, has incited what Chinese observers called “sour grape” mentality in the Western countries, who are still swooned by the pandemic. Reuters, when reporting on the deal, connected it with the US election, saying that it will “cement China’s position more firmly as an economic partner with Southeast Asia, Japan and Korea.” “The deal was proposed by ASEAN countries first. China, with its economic size and huge market, will act as a major engine for this partnership.China will fully support the pact but will not dominate it,” Zhuang Guotu, head of Xiamen University’s Southeast Asian Studies Center, told the Global Times, noting that the deal will benefit the whole of East Asia, not only China.

Not only ASEAN countries, but Japan has also shown huge interest in this partnership. Apart from betting hope on the RCEP to pump up its sluggish economy, Japan also intends to use the China-involved trade deal to exert pressure on the US, and win leverage on negotiation with the US on Trans-Pacific Partnership,said Liu Junhong, an expert from the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations who specializes in Japan issues.

Apart from RCEP, China and ASEAN countries proposed to enhance cooperation on digital infrastructure, internet, satellite navigation and other areas, and promote the application of 5G, helping ASEAN countries to bridge the digital divide, read a joint proposal announced by China and ASEAN countries, published on website of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Thursday. Premier Li noted at the meeting that the South China Sea situation is stable overall, which is the result of the deepened cooperation between China and ASEAN countries, who actively control divergence, and effectively implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and steadily push ahead with the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea negotiations.

China’s determination of pushing forward the agreement on the COC remains the same, and it will hold face-to-face negotiation on the conduct in China, once the pandemic is put under control and push forward the second reading of the South China Sea COC, Li said, noting that it will show the international society that we have the wisdom, as well as ability to maintain stability in the South China Sea region.

Experts predict that the code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea will be an important part of the meeting agenda, as 2021 will be the deadline to conclude the talks on the COC. 

Yet Chen Xiangmiao, an assistant research fellow at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said COVID-19 has slowed the process of negotiations on the code, and the year of 2020 has seen positive momentum of cooperation between China and ASEAN members. But there are still noises on the code of conduct from non-regional countries, notably, the US.

Yet observers said that Joe Biden will also try to ease the tension that has been hovering over this region in the past. 

Biden is likely to inherit diplomatic policies advocated by former US president Barack Obama, which favors multilateralism, Chen told the Global Times, noting that no matter who takes office at the White House, US antagonism toward China in this region won’t be altered, said Chen.

Biden’s Democratic Party singled out the ASEAN during its election campaign. “We will reinvigorate our commitment to robust engagement with regional multilateral institutions like [ASEAN], which will help us promote the rule of law and sustainable, inclusive economic growth on both sides of the Pacific,” says 2020 Democratic Party Platform, suggesting an increased US presence in the region.

“We will see less close-range conflicts in this region if Biden takes office, which would give the region a buffer period for peaceful cooperation and development,” Chen said. 

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