“ASEAN’s RCEP Dilemma”, a Commentary by Malcolm Cook

Commentary 2016/59, 14 September 2016

The difficulty of ASEAN and the wider ASEAN-led diplomatic processes to reach a common position on the maritime rights disputes between China (and Taiwan) and five ASEAN member-states in the South China Sea dominates coverage of ASEAN. Intractable differences between the US and China over how the ASEAN Defence Minister Meeting Plus process should address (or not) the South China Sea was widely blamed for the failure to produce the promised joint statement last year in Kuala Lumpur. As this story goes, ASEAN’s unrivalled regional convening role was usurped by major power disagreement.

A similar dilemma for ASEAN, with the same root in major power disagreement, is playing out on the economic front. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations to combine into a greater whole ASEAN’s trade agreements with Japan, China, India, South Korea, and Australia and New Zealand are well behind schedule with no timetable for conclusion. The tunnel grows longer and the light dimmer.

Like US-China (and Japan-China) strategic rivalry, this is reflective of a global structural problem beyond ASEAN’s control and surmounting. Among the largest economies in the world there are few ratified free trade agreements. The U.S. is only linked to Canada, Japan to India, and China to none. Recently, major economies have shifted to mega-regional deals like RCEP to overcome the difficulties of bilateral negotiations. So far this has not prospered. The Obama administration’s efforts to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership that includes Japan and to conclude the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union look doomed.

For RCEP to be concluded, the developing economy giants India and China will have agree on a common deal as will bitter rivals China and Japan. On East Asian regional security and economic matters, ASEAN is uniquely able bring the major powers to their table because Southeast Asia is home to no major power. This same asymmetry of power explains why there is often no agreement reached at this table. Criticisms of ASEAN ineffectiveness and hopes for effective ASEAN centrality and RCEP should bear this unavoidable dilemma in mind.

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

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