On November 15, 2020, 15 countries – members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and five regional partners – signed the Regional Economic Partnership (RCEP), probably the largest free trade agreement in history. RCEP and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), concluded in 2018 and also dominated by East Asian members, are the only major multilateral free trade agreements signed under the Trump era. The impact of RCEP is impressive, even if the agreement is not as severe as the CPTPP. It encourages supply chains across the region, but also takes into account political sensitivities. Its intellectual property rules do little to make a contribution to what many members have and the agreement says nothing at all about labour, the environment or state-owned enterprises – all key chapters of the CPTPP. However, ASEAN-focused trade agreements tend to improve over time. Many Member States already have free trade agreements between them, but there are restrictions. We also believe that RCEP and CPTPP, together, will offset the global losses resulting from the US-China trade war, but not for China and the US. The new agreements will make the economies of North and Southeast Asia more efficient and connect their strengths in technology, manufacturing, agriculture and natural resources. In retrospect, the Trump administration`s Asian policy focused on a new vision of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). As experts found, the principles of the FOIP – an open, inclusive and peaceful region – were in line with established US policy. But the government`s tactics then insisted on isolating China from regional economic networks and implementing quad-centric security measures (Australia, India, Japan and the United States). ASEAN countries will benefit less from RCEP than other (deeper) trade agreements.
ASEAN economies will have the weakest benefits among RCEP signatories because, given the existing network of trade agreements, they have the least leeway to remove barriers with other members. . . .