MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – A recent China-sponsored forum on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) showed participants physically gathered inside a big function room in Haikou, Hainan province, seated closely together and with no face masks on.
The image was shocking as it was sobering. While those of us in these parts are still battling the COVID-19 pandemic, with just over a million of 110 million Filipinos fully vaccinated, in China where the pandemic began, it’s back to business as usual.
It was just as surprising that we got an invite from China Daily, the biggest English-language newspaper in China, to speak at the forum on the RCEP, the free trade agreement between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) plus China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand.
It seemed awkward to participate in the forum, given that Chinese ships converging in the West Philippine Sea is the big issue at the moment.
But Zhou Shuchun, China Daily’s publisher and editor in chief, gave no hint that this would be an issue when he graciously extended the invitation. So we joined Asian journalists and experts who spoke via Zoom while Chinese officials, diplomats, and most of the 300 participants were live from Haikou.
China Daily cosponsored the RCEP Media & Think Tank Forum with the Hainan government and the China Institute for Reform and Development in a concerted push for the RCEP, seen as an alternative to the Trans-Pacific Partnership that used to include the US.
The RCEP’s signatories account for almost half of the world’s population and around 30 percent of global GDP, which would make it the world’s biggest trading bloc. The deal aims to eliminate tariffs on 65 percent of goods traded in the region initially, with hopes that it could revive economies battered by the pandemic.
Negotiated since 2013, RCEP was approved on Nov. 15, 2020, at the Asean summit in Cambodia. It will come into force after six Asean members and three partners ratify the agreement. Only China, Japan, Singapore, and Thailand have ratified the deal so far.
At the forum, we pointed out that while policymakers are optimistic the deal could spur economic growth post-pandemic, there are concerns it could deepen inequalities between the rich and the less-developed economies. The Philippines is among the latter, with undersupported farmers expected to suffer more in a regime of cheap imports.
There is also the timing. The Philippines is expected to ratify the agreement middle of the year. There seems to be no noise about that.
The top priorities at this time are getting at least 70 million Filipinos vaccinated and launching the difficult task of reviving the economy.
Also, the 2022 election season will kick in this October. As the RCEP will come into force by Jan. 1, 2022, it will be up to the next administration to decide the pace of the country’s accession to the China-led RCEP-and whether the country’s foreign policy will remain pivoted to China or will revert back to trusted ally America.
At the forum, Chinese officials drummed up Chinese President Xi Jinping’s call for multilateralism and open trade as the sales pitch for the RCEP.
Kevin Rudd, former prime minister of Australia and president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, said that global trade should be protected from politics. However, Australia and China are now embroiled in a trade war even before Australia could ratify the RCEP.
But for us media panelists, the first problem for the RCEP is awareness. There is very limited information about how the RCEP works.
People simply don’t know the first thing about it, as pointed out by Wong Chun Wai, advisor and former editor in chief of Malaysia’s Star Media Group.
Pana Janviroj, executive director of the Asia News Network (ANN), said the group’s 24 members (which include the Philippine Daily Inquirer and China Daily) can help disseminate information about the business opportunities the RCEP could open.
Jiang Jianguo, vice minister of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, said that media and think tanks can help “build consensus among participating countries and achieve win-win outcomes.”
For his part, Zhou called on the media and think tanks to “leverage their unique role of enhancing mutual understanding” about the RCEP and promoting its success as a shared future for Asia.
This would be possible when the rules are spelled out in absolute transparency and communicated well to the public.
For a free trade deal of this magnitude and members with very diverse economic conditions, the devil will certainly be in the details.
The writer is the associate publisher of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. The paper is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 newspaper titles.
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