China joins U.S. allies including Japan and Australia in a new Asia-Pacific trade agreement that launches Saturday—with the U.S. watching from the sidelines.
The new Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, will eventually eliminate more than 90% of tariffs on commerce among its 15 member countries, in what economists say will be a boon to trade in the region. It will also give China a more prominent role in setting rules of trade in the Asia-Pacific region at the expense of the U.S., according to some analysts.
“This will be a grouping of countries that will work together and try to develop new rules and new standards,” said Wendy Cutler, vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute and a former U.S. trade official. “[The U.S. is] moving in the other direction.”
China had been excluded from an earlier trade agreement, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the U.S. had led to counter China’s influence in the region. But the U.S. withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017 under former President Donald Trump, who said the agreement hurt U.S. workers. Many lawmakers also opposed the pact, and the Biden administration says it has no plans to rejoin it.
Henry Gao, an Asia trade expert and associate professor of law at Singapore Management University, said the new RCEP “could be a wake-up call for the U.S. to rethink its strategy and come back to Asia-Pacific.” A senior Biden administration official said the White House recognizes the need for the U.S. to engage the Asia-Pacific region economically and discussions about how to do so were ongoing.
The other member nations of the RCEP are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam. With RCEP members accounting for 30% of global population and gross domestic product, the partnership becomes the world’s largest regional trade agreement, exceeding the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement and the European Customs Union.
The agreement aims to eliminate almost all tariffs on imports between the nations in up to 20 years and establishes common standards on intellectual property rights and e-commerce.
In a Nov. 8 letter, 13 GOP senators led by Mike Crapo (R., Idaho), the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, urged Mr. Biden to get involved in new trade rule making in the Asia-Pacific region, saying the absence of the U.S. “encourages potential partners to move forward without us and ensures China will hold the reins of the global economy.”
The launch of the RCEP comes at a time when China seeks bigger roles in making trade rules in the Asia-Pacific region while the U.S. remains largely absent. The Brookings Institution estimates the RCEP could add $209 billion annually to world incomes, and $500 billion to world trade by 2030.