Fifteen countries in the Asia-Pacific region signed yesterday what could become the largest free trade agreement in the world, covering almost a third of the world’s population and about 30% of the world’s gross domestic product.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) will gradually lead to lower tariffs while aiming to combat protectionism, boost investment, and allow the free movement of goods within the region.


The RCEP includes China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN): Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, Idon Philippines.

India participated in the initial talks, but last year chose to withdraw due to concerns about cheap Chinese imports.

Member States have said, however, that there is still room for India to join the RCEP. Any country can join RCEP 18 months after the agreement enters into force, but India, which was one of the first countries to negotiate, can join at any time once it is activated.


The RCEP was signed yesterday at the end of a four-day ASEAN video conference in Hanoi, which must now be ratified before it can take effect, a process that takes months to begin and years to complete.

The 510-page, 12-chapter agreement had not been made public before yesterday’s ceremony, as “several parties did not consent to the publication of the text before the signing,” the New Zealand Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

According to copies posted yesterday on the websites of the Foreign Ministries of the RCEP member states, the agreement must be ratified by at least six ASEAN countries and three non-member countries before it can enter into force.


RCEP marks in particular the first time that China, Japan and South Korea have come together under a single trade agreement – a process that in other cases has been marred by historical and diplomatic differences.

“Japan can reap significant benefits (with RCEP), as it now has privileged access to South Korea and China, which it did not have before,” said Deborah Elms of the Asian Trade Center in Singapore.


RCEP offers some flexibility to the less developed Member States to implement the practical and legislative changes it requires. Cambodia and Laos, for example, have three to five years to upgrade their customs procedures.

Α complex issue that varies from country to country is exactly which sectors are open to tariff reductions under RCEP . Some countries have compiled lists of what RCEP includes, while others have prepared lists of what excludes it.

For countries that already have free trade agreements with each other, an additional benefit of RCEP is that it creates a common framework of rules of origin, which will facilitate the movement of goods between the 15 Member States.


The idea of ​​RCEP, born in 2012, was seen as a way for China, the country with the largest imports and exports in the region, to deal with the growing US influence in Asia-Pacific. It gained momentum when Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in 2017.

The TPP was subsequently renamed the Comprehensive and Progressive Partnership Agreement for the Pacific (CPTPP), and includes seven RCEP member states, but not the United States.

RCEP focuses mainly on reducing tariffs and increasing market access but is considered less competitive than CPTPP.

It also requires fewer political or economic concessions and places less emphasis on labor rights, environmental and intellectual property protection and dispute resolution mechanisms.

RCEP’s market size is almost five times that of CPTPP.

“For an agreement signed by countries that did not offer to participate and with such incredible diversity in the Member States, the quality of RCEP exceeds expectations,” said Elms of the Asian Trade Center. “It will offer significant financial benefits to many companies.”

Source: ΑΠΕ-ΜΠΕ

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