Asian states create huge free trade zone

Fifteen Asia-Pacific countries signed the world's largest trade agreement on Sunday. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) comprises around a third of global economic output. Close allies of the US such as Australia, Japan and South Korea will also participate in the agreement initiated by China. The press examines how much of a breakthrough the agreement really is and how Europe might benefit.

Open/close all quotes (DE) /

Workers' rights and eco standards left out

Now we can observe what a free trade zone under China's aegis will look like, comments

“Workers' rights, free trade unions, environmental standards - none of these things are included. The situation would have been completely different if the free trade zone TPP - the transpacific partnership - had come into being. The US wanted a TPP without China, but with common standards in areas such as environmental protection and workers' rights. But Trump, the protectionist and despiser of multilateralism, pulled out of the TPP process right at the start of his term in office. All those moaning about China's growing influence can thank Donald Trump. He tried to limit China's economic power - and in doing so achieved exactly the opposite.”

Global Times (CN) /

Everyone wins

The role of Beijing in the conclusion of the agreement has been misrepresented, according to the Global Times China:

“Some Western media outlets reported that the RCEP is 'China-led' or is intended to expand China's influence in Asia, describing China as the biggest beneficiary of the RCEP. ... There are problems with those people's value system and ability to judge. Their prejudices against China are so deep that their minds become confused whenever China is involved in anything. If China is the so-called winner this time, then it is a win-win situation for all other RCEP members because these countries have strived for their own benefits during the past eight years of negotiations. All countries can only be winners of this agreement.”

De Volkskrant (NL) /

Pragmatism beats protectionism

The new Asia-Pacific free trade zone need not pose a threat to Europe, De Volkskrant believes:

“An enormous free trade zone in Asia could be beneficial for European companies. The EU can conclude a new trade agreement with the RCEP, as it did in the past with South American Mercosur. And the RCEP, a fruit of Asian pragmatism, also seems to strengthen the multilateralism in which the EU thrives. The symbolism of the founding of the RCEP in the middle of the global coronavirus pandemic and on the eve of Biden's presidency should not be underestimated. With RCEP, China is positioning itself as the world champion in the fight against Trumpist protectionism.”

Corriere del Ticino (CH) /

Not perfect but a big step forward

Free trade is always good, even if not all aspects of it are perfect, Corriere del Ticino believes:

“The aspect that raises doubts is the fact that China is the driving force behind the agreement - a country that supports free trade on the international level but enforces political and economic statism at the domestic level. Moreover, many observers believe that the agreement doesn't pay enough attention to labour and environmental rights. These doubts are justified, and it's clear that the agreement must be reviewed in the further course of events. But the positive aspect cannot be emphasised enough. ... This is a major new agreement that focuses on the development of trade liberalisation instead of waging trade wars.”

Lidové noviny (CZ) /

Chinese-style free trade

China has not suddenly become a pioneer in free trade, Lidové noviny counters:

“Exports and free trade bring advantages for all parties concerned. So why shouldn't China - which by some criteria is the world's largest economic power and a major industrial power - also be allowed to participate? For the simple reason that China is not inclined to free trade. Beijing's 'free' has 'Chinese characteristics', aimed as it is at securing advantages for China on the international stage. Beijing has no intention of opening its own market. But what it is interested in is that other countries should not hinder Chinese goods of dubious quality from entering their markets.”

The Economist (GB) /

Not the milestone it's being made out to be

The Economist sees no sign of a major free trade breakthrough:

“Its origins are as a kind of tidying-up exercise: joining together in one overarching compact the various free-trade agreements ... RCEP is less ambitious, as would be expected of an agreement whose signatories range from the very rich, such as Japan and Singapore, to the very poor, such as Laos and Myanmar. It eliminates, by one estimate, about 90% of tariffs, but only over a period of 20 years after coming into effect. ... Its coverage of services is patchy and it hardly touches agriculture. Japan, for example, will maintain high import duties on some 'politically sensitive' agricultural products (rice, wheat, beef and pork, dairy and sugar).”

La Stampa (IT) /

The Europeans want to be involved

Europe wants to make sure it isn't left out of this project, La Stampa writes:

“Relations between the EU and Asia are good, and as European diplomatic sources emphasise, they are not being called into question. So a new discussion about the current negotiating conditions between Europe and Asia should not be ruled out. Joe Biden's taking office in the White House could also send a signal of détente. The framework for the largest international trade agreement has been put in place. But now Europe will also want to play its cards.”