Singapore signs RCEP, world’s biggest trade deal, with 14 other countries

Singapore Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing signing the RCEP agreement, witnessed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong November 15, 2020. — Singapore Ministry of Communications and Information pic via TODAY
Singapore Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing signing the RCEP agreement, witnessed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong November 15, 2020. — Singapore Ministry of Communications and Information pic via TODAY

SINGAPORE, Nov 16 — Fifteen Asia-Pacific economies, including Singapore, yesterday put pen to paper on the world’s largest trade agreement — the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

The signing, which was eight years in the making, came at the end of a four-day summit held in Hanoi, Vietnam.

The RCEP includes China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and the 10 members of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) — Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar.

The agreement will aim to lower tariffs, open up trade in goods and services, and promote investment to help emerging economies catch up with the rest of the world.

After the signing, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that the countries have reached a “major milestone” that has taken 46 negotiating meetings and 19 ministerial meetings.

The RCEP is a “major step forward for the world”, consolidating smaller existing agreements “to create a comprehensive partnership agreement in Asia, fit for the 21st century,” he added.

Lee said: “It signals our collective commitment to maintaining open and connected supply chains, and to promoting freer trade and closer interdependence, especially in the face of Covid-19 when countries are turning inwards and are under protectionist pressures.”

The signing of the agreement is a “timely boost to the longer-term prospects of the region” in light of the Covid-19 pandemic disrupting global production and supply chains, Singapore’s Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing told the media yesterday.

He said that RCEP will allow the Asia-Pacific region to remain as an attractive investment destination after the pandemic subsides, as well as place it at the forefront of the global economic recovery.

“The after-effects (of Covid-19) will linger for years to come and it will take time for all of us to rebuild our economies and recover from the crisis. Even so, no economy can recover on its own,” Chan said.

“At a time when support for multilateralism is fraying, the RCEP will send a clear statement of the region’s unwavering support and commitment to the multilateral trading system.”

While the pact has not been ratified yet, Chan said all countries in it “need to accelerate efforts” to do so as soon as possible.

The RCEP will potentially provide further opportunities for Singapore’s trade with the 14 other countries, which totalled about half (S$15.2 billion or RM46.46 billion) of Singapore’s global trade last year, he noted.

Background

The RCEP was launched in 2012. It comprises about 30 per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP) and about a third of the world’s population.

India was involved in earlier discussions but withdrew last year over concerns about cheap Chinese goods entering the country.

PM Lee said that he, along with the other countries, hopes that India will join at some point “so that the participation in the RCEP will fully reflect the emerging patterns of integration and regional co-operation in Asia.”

When the idea for RCEP was hatched, it was seen as a way for China — Asia-Pacific’s biggest importer and exporter — to counter growing US influence in the region.

At the time, China was not among the 12 members of the “mega-regional” Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) led by the US.

In 2017, President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the TPP. It was then renamed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and it includes seven RCEP members.

The RCEP's market size is nearly five times greater than that of the CPTPP, with almost double its annual trade value and combined GDP.

Significance of RCEP

Chan said that everyone has had to make “difficult trade-offs” to advance RCEP negotiations. “At one point, the prospects of concluding the agreement were shaken by geo-political and domestic preoccupations,” he noted.

Nevertheless, with the signing of the pact, he listed several points of its economic significance amid and post-Covid-19:

  • More preferential market access, notably into China, Japan and South Korea
  • Simplified customs procedures and improved measures to facilitate tradeAt least 65 per cent of services sectors open to foreign participation, with increase in permissible foreign shareholding limits in some RCEP markets
  • Improved investment rules and disciplines to better support businesses’ regional investments
  • Consolidation of existing rules into a single rulebook, allowing companies to better take advantage of regional value chains
  • Emerging trade fields to be pursued under RCEP include e-commerce, intellectual property (IP) and competition policy rights

“For Singapore, the RCEP provides a strong foundation for us to rebuild our economy and overcome the challenges as we emerge from the pandemic together. I look forward to seeing our businesses tap the benefits from the RCEP to support their post-pandemic recovery efforts,” Chan said. — TODAY

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