HANOI, Vietnam — Asia Pacific nations including China, Japan, and South Korea yesterday signed the world’s largest regional free-trade agreement, encompassing nearly a third of the world’s population and Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

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Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc is pictured on the screen (R) as he addresses his counterparts during the 4th Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Summit at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit being held online in Hanoi on November 15, 2020. (Photo by Nhac NGUYEN / AFP / MANILA BULLETIN)

Top officials from 15 nations that include Australia, New Zealand, and the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP — nearly a decade in the making — on the final day of the 37th ASEAN Summit hosted virtually by Vietnam.

“The completion of negotiations is a strong message affirming ASEAN’s role in supporting the multilateral trade system,” Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said ahead of the virtual signing ceremony.

The agreement will contribute to “developing supply chains that have been disrupted due to the pandemic as well as supporting economic recovery,” he said.

Supporters of the trade pact, which covers 2.2 billion people with a combined GDP of $26.2 trillion, said it will bolster pandemic-weakened economies by reducing tariffs, strengthening supply chains with common rules of origin, and codifying new e-commerce rules.

The benefits of the agreement include a tariff elimination of at least 92% on traded goods among participating countries, as well as stronger provisions to address non-tariff measures, and enhancements in areas such as online consumer and personal information protection, transparency and paperless trading, according to a statement issued on Sunday by Singapore’s Ministry of Trade and Industry.

It also includes simplified customs procedures while at least 65% of services sectors will be fully open with increased foreign shareholding limits.

The RCEP “solidifies China’s broader regional geopolitical ambitions around the Belt and Road initiative,” said Alexander Capri, a trade expert at the National University of Singapore Business School, referring to Beijing’s signature investment project that envisions Chinese infrastructure and influence spanning the globe.

“It’s sort of a complementary element.” But many of the signatories are battling severe coronavirus outbreaks and they are also hoping the RCEP will help mitigate the crippling economic cost of the illness.

Indonesia recently tumbled into its first recession in two decades while the Philippine economy shrunk by 11.5 percent on-year in the latest quarter.

“COVID has reminded the region of why trade matters and governments are more eager than ever to have positive economic growth,” said Deborah Elms, executive director of the Asian Trade Centre, a Singapore-based consultancy.

“RCEP can help deliver it.”

India exit

Negotiators pushed the deal across the finish line after India surprised participants late last year by quitting the agreement.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he pulled out over concerns about how RCEP would affect the livelihoods of Indians, particularly the most vulnerable. India, though, will be allowed to rejoin the trade pact.

“The clause allowing India to join at a later date is symbolic and shows China’s desire to build economic bridges with the region’s third-largest economy,” said Shaun Roache, Asia Pacific chief economist at S&P Global Ratings.

Malaysia recognizes the difficulties India is facing, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said in a speech on Sunday.

“Nevertheless, we wish to express our continuous support and welcome its accession to RCEP in the future.”

Whether RCEP changes regional dynamics in favor of China depends on the US response, experts said. The agreement underscores how US President Donald Trump’s 2017 decision to withdraw from a different Asia Pacific trade pact — the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP — diminished America’s ability to offer a counterbalance to China’s growing regional economic influence.

Biden’s challenge

That challenge will shift to President-elect Joe Biden if, as expected, he’s officially named the winner of the Nov. 3 election. Still uncertain is how the Biden team will approach trade deals and whether it tries to re-enter the 11-nation TPP.

The RCEP signing comes as Southeast Asian nations experience uneven recoveries from the coronavirus pandemic.

Governments around the region have been negotiating travel lanes and bubbles in fits and starts as officials weigh health risks with economic needs. Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines are among those still dealing with elevated virus caseloads, while Singapore and Vietnam have so far successfully prevented new outbreaks.

“The main benefit from RCEP will be to reduce costs across Asia Pacific supply chains and support the region’s dominance of the global trading system,” Roache said.

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