Historical Baggage

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The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (‘RCEP’) Agreement signed on Sunday has received a lot more attention and interest than I would have expected. People who don’t normally show any interest in geo-politics and trade deals have asked me about it, pointing to headlines like “World’s Biggest Trade Deal” and the fact that it covers nearly one third of the world’s population and GDP, and the media has been analysing the impact of RCEP in the last few days to identify the winners and losers.

The SCMP provides a balanced and analytical perspective, concluding that “China may claim a symbolic victory in the signing of the world’s biggest trade deal in the face of ongoing US disinterest in multilateralism, but the direct economic benefits will be marginal” and “while membership of the RCEP will add incrementally to Chinese GDP, it will not be enough to cancel out the damage of the trade war with the United States”.

In my opinion, the greatest achievement of the RCEP is that it is the first time that China, Japan and South Korea have been brought together under a free-trade agreement. As we progress through the Asian Century, I think that’s very significant and may have been overlooked in the rush to point out the East-West implications. You don’t need to be a trained historian to understand the historical, cultural and geo-political baggage that these countries carry from the past which need to be put aside to embrace a future of mutual respect, free trade and multilateralism. Contrary to some of the more attention-grabbing headlines, I think this may turn out to be the RCEP’s major achievement.

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