Affirming ASEAN’s East Asian Centrality

The signing of the 15-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is significant, and not only due to the fact that the trade deal will cover a third of the world’s population and GDP. The RCEP also affirms the power of the East Asia concept and ASEAN’s centrality within it.

Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc is pictured on the screen (R) as he addresses his counterparts during the 4th RCEP Summit at the ASEAN summit being held online in Hanoi on November 15, 2020. (Photo: Nhac Nguyen, AFP)
Malcolm Cook

Malcolm Cook

16 November 2020

The signing of the an ASEAN-led free trade agreement involving 15 countries yesterday was done virtually, but the very act itself is sweeping in its significance. After eight years of negotiations, the 15 countries signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade deal at the 37th ASEAN Summit. The RCEP involves all 10 ASEAN members states, ASEAN’s three dialogue partners from Northeast Asia (China, Japan and South Korea) and two from Oceania (Australia and New Zealand). By far, the RCEP is the world’s largest mega-regional trade deal covering almost one-third of the world’s population and GDP.

Predictably, much of the media coverage, including oddly in Southeast Asia itself, of yesterday’s successful conclusion to these negotiations, and in general, gives short shrift to RCEP’s ASEANess. Instead RCEP coverage has long fixated on China’s perceived central role in the agreement, and the apparent benefits it will provide to China’s regional leadership ambitions. One easily could be led to think that RCEP was a Chinese initiative that Southeast Asian states joined and offered ASEAN up as the venue for negotiations; a trade equivalent to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Chartof RCEP member countries

In fact, the opposite is true. In 2012, it was ASEAN which invited China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India to join RCEP negotiations as ASEAN dialogue partners that already had concluded trade agreements with ASEAN. To ASEAN’s chagrin, India withdrew from RCEP twelve months ago. China was the main factor in India’s decision.

RCEP provides clear evidence of ASEAN’s irreplaceable East Asian centrality and the benefits of this for China, Japan and South Korea. If ratified as is expected by Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul, RCEP’s greatest achievement will be it is a trade agreement that involves the three Northeast Asian economies. China, Japan and South Korea are the three largest economies in RCEP and together account for over 80 per cent of the collective GDP of RCEP economies. Quite ironically, in fact, the Northeast Asian character of RCEP is due to the efforts of ASEAN.

RCEP provides clear evidence of ASEAN’s irreplaceable East Asian centrality and the benefits of this for China, Japan and South Korea.

RCEP is the first trade agreement beyond the WTO to bring together China, Japan and South Korea. It is not the first to try to do so though. For the last two decades, the three Northeast Asian neighbours have been talking about, and occasionally negotiating, a trilateral China-Japan-Korea (CJK) trade agreement. Alas, the historical legacy of Japanese colonisation and its disruptive effect on Japan-China and Japan-South Korea relations have repeatedly stalled these efforts. South Korea and China also decided not to join the mega-regional Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, which commenced well before ASEAN created RCEP, that concluded in March 2018 with the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). ASEAN has delivered for China, Japan and South Korea what they could not do themselves.

Comparatively, for ASEAN member states themselves, RCEP’s impact is less historic. RCEP is, as designed, a mechanism to leverage ASEAN’s existing trade agreements with its dialogue partners to establish a single agreement covering all of them. For ASEAN member states, RCEP is a consolidation not an expansion exercise.

For Australia and New Zealand, RCEP, while still important, is even less. Australia already has ratified higher quality trade agreements than RCEP with ASEAN, China, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand. Australia is also a ratified member of the higher-quality CPTPP. The same applies to New Zealand. It is a ratified CPTPP member and has ratified higher-quality trade agreements with ASEAN, Australia, China and South Korea. Within the RCEP ranks, Japan, Singapore and Vietnam are also CPTPP members. Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam signed the CPTPP but have yet to ratify the agreement.

RCEP is the latest example of ASEAN facilitating greater contact and cooperation between China, Japan and Southeast Asia for the benefit of East Asia. In 1997, in the midst of the Asian Financial Crisis, ASEAN established the ASEAN+3 process bringing together the ten ASEAN member states and China, Japan and South Korea. The ASEAN+3 process provided a conducive environment for the three ASEAN dialogue partners to start trilateral meetings between themselves. However, the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea have met more frequently and regularly at the 22 ASEAN+3 Summits held since 1997 then they have at the irregularly scheduled and frequently postponed China-Japan-Korea trilateral summits. ASEAN+3 has become the most active ASEAN-led broader grouping as has been shown during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

The lack of Northeast Asian cooperation and trust has worked against East Asia becoming the predominant regional framework. Over the last three decades, the broader Asia-Pacific framework that includes the US has held sway over the geographically, culturally and historically more coherent East Asian one. More recently, the even more expansive and disparate concept of the Indo-Pacific that includes India has threatened the Asia-Pacific framework‘s predominance. RCEP, by including China, Japan and South Korea but not the US or India, gives a welcome boost to the idea of East Asia and ASEAN’s central, vital and irreplaceable position in it.

Dr Malcolm Cook is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/183

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.