RCEP – benefiting from “America first”

16 November, 2020

Only yesterday – on October 15 – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Agreement finally was signed after eight years of complicated negotiations, altogether over 30 rounds. https://asean.org/storage/2020/11/Summary-of-the-RCEP-Agreement.pdf

These negotiations included the ten already co-operating ASEAN trading partners: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, The Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Viet Nam and the five “deal newcomers” of China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. These countries amount to as much as 2.2 billion people or around 30 percent of the global population and GDP.

Without more detailed information right now one may conclude that RCEP – after all national ratifications – will be the starting point for the largest free trade zone in the world. Initially, President Obama and the U.S. wanted to be part of the negotiations as well. This plan was shattered by President Trump and his “America first” policy; certainly not a good idea – not even for the U.S. itself.

Comments – the U.S. and the EU in a weakened position (Sweden included) 

¤ Right now: China the main winner – the U.S. and the EU the main losers.
No further explanation is needed to underline that China clearly sticks out as the most powerful economic player of the 15 RCEP countries – in regions geographically not too far away and, consequently, already China’s main trading partners when summarizing the whole RCEP area. The objective of the trade agreement is to include over 90 percent of all traded goods for free trade and roughly two thirds of all cross-border traded services according to the following official source: https://www.mti.gov.sg/-/media/MTI/Newsroom/Press-Releases/2020/11/Press-Release-on-the-Regional-Comprehensive-Economic-Partnership-Signing.pdf.

However, some applicable time horizon cannot be found in available documents. Usually, it takes quite some years until major trade agreements have come into place completely.

¤ Really “fait accompli”?
Currently, I do not see toughly pressing obstacles for the introduction and – later on – continuation of the RCEP. However, new events sometimes change things. We still do not know about the speed of the complete abolition of all the different tariffs – may be much more slowly than many experts assume today.

Furthermore: Will President (Elect) Biden work for an American joining later on which would include new negotiations? We never know. But we probably can expect that Biden will be looking for (somewhat) more relaxed relations to China –whatever this may lead to.

¤ The EU needs much more cross-border co-operation in Asia – but not with India or China.
The EU’s trade with the expanding 14 RCEP states (China excl) is, of course, much more limited than China’s. In my view, only a much more co-operative EU will have a chance of really successfully being able to compete with China in the other RCEP countries.

However, it would be wrong to see India as an alternative to the RCEP. The answer can only be RCEP and India which has been suggested. Besides, India has been invited again to join the RCEP. This is not in line with current Indian ambitions – but who knows what will happen in 10 years or so?

¤  Return to a multilateral trade treaty – indeed good news.
In recent decades China and the U.S. have developed more and more into promoters of bilateral trade agreements. Theory and research, however, prefer clearly multinational trade deals.

The RCEP finally means a step into the right policy direction!

Hubert Fromlet
Affiliate Professor at the School of Business and Economics, Linnaeus University
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China and the U.S. election

3 November, 2020

During my many visits to China I used to get the impression that the Chinese mostly looked at the U.S. with mixed feelings – feelings that also included some kind of admiration. The American dream of developing from a poor origin to a wealthy person attracted many Chinese on micro levels. Some kind of capitalist socialism or vice versa was born in the 1990s.

Politically, China and the U.S. kept quite some distance in the new millennium all the same. Tensions continued during Bill Clinton’s presidency but his support for China’s entry into the WTO in 2001 was appreciated. This move turned out to be the main driver for China’s rise to become the largest economy in the world (in terms of total GDP and PPP), together with the simultaneously ongoing globalization. President Obama’s relations to China had a number of ups and downs as well. President Trump, finally, could be increasingly regarded as an opponent to China during the past four years.

In 1997, professor David Shambaugh wrote in Current History (September) that “China and the United States are likely to be the dominant world powers in the twenty-first century. It is imperative that these two continental giants learn to live and work together productively and cooperatively”. Altogether, the conclusion above on the two leading world powers turned out to be right – but the recommendation of working together did not really come true, particularly not in the past four years. Biden could make some difference – but probably not in a significant manner.

The Trump years of 2017-2021 – and now?

President Trumps leitmotiv of “America first” did quite some harm to China, the global economy and also to the U.S. itself, particularly due to the revival of protectionism. This is certainly a bad development. But what do the Chinese themselves feel about today’s election?

Despite many unfriendly words from the Trump-administration, the Chinese support Trump’s aversion or doubts against traditional allies such as NATO and his attempt to weaken American (Western) democracy. Chinese media also take the chance of describing the superiority of its authoritarian system, exemplified by what the official China calls the victory against the covid-19 crisis. China remains the top issue for the Chinese and certainly not the U.S. The result of the presidential election in the U.S. does not make a major difference – neither to President Xi Jinping or the Chinese people (according to my own understanding of Chinese press). However, there is no clearly visible preference for Biden either.

Competition with the U.S. will remain the keyword for the future of China – when it comes to the economy, technology, research and military power. However, in my view three possible and necessary changes may happen in the future with a President Biden: a (somewhat) stronger priority of  the environment, a (somewhat) better political predictability and a more polite style of communication between the two superpowers.

And we should not give up hope for better cooperation!

Hubert Fromlet
Affiliate Professor at the School of Business and Economics, Linnaeus University
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China’s new face

20 October, 2020

During many years, I have made the acquaintance with China as a country that indeed tried hard to receive recognition both at home and from abroad. This was still the case in early 2019 when China with strong words tried to defend the good sides of free trade. Consequently, China opposed decisively against the increasing protectionism of the Trump administration. The Western world liked this positioning of the Chinese political leadership.

However, developments in Hong Kong changed things dramatically. Interventions there initiated by Beijing started to irritate the U.S., the EU and single Western governments increasingly in the past year. Poor transparency about the corona virus in the beginning of 2020 worsened things further. China missed then the chance of regaining recognition from the Western hemisphere.

All this reflects a negative development and is certainly not good for China itself, the U.S., the EU and the whole global economy. It means a major loss of global trust and confidence after a long period with a positive Chinese contribution to global GDP growth, in most years in the past decade by one fourth to one third of global growth. Many companies in our part of the world have become highly dependent on good business with China – and the other way around in a Chinese perspective. How long time can it take until the worsened trade relations – particularly with the U.S. – may become relatively normal again? Such a reversal would be a commercial win-win situation. Today, nobody can give an applicable answer.

Major parts of the answers to the questions above are linked to politics – an area that has become more and more complicated to predict. Today, we do not know about the outcome of the American presidential election. We do not even know whether a possible President Biden would work for really improving relations to China – if yes probably not very quickly.

The important 100th anniversary of China’s Communist Party in 2021

Today, we cannot foresee either how the Chinese political leadership wants to define and organize its future. Determined by renewed pragmatism or mainly by dogmatic ideology?

But we do know that China has been changing face in the past few months. There may be different reasons for this. One important reason is certainly the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party (CPC) in 2021. No doubt, for these anniversary celebrations three most important developments have to be met:

¤ strong political leadership of the CPC in mainland China and also in Hong Kong;                                                                      

¤ a good economic recovery after the corona crisis (which was “confirmed” after I had written this article by the official announcement of China’s GDP growth at 4.9 percent for Q3, yoy; thus, China will be the only major economy that will achieve a positive GDP growth in 2020 – though to a high extent pushed by governmental support to SoEs);

 ¤ a strong international position that can resist pressure from the United States.

China’s new face means for the time being that domestic priorities dominate when they are conflicting with international sympathy points. Until recently, China has been working for reasonable compromises in such conflicting situations. This chapter is now closed.

For how long time?

Hubert Fromlet
Affiliate Professor at the School of Business and Economics, Linnaeus University
Editorial board


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