On November 15, 2020, 15 countries – members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and five regional partners – signed the Regional Economic Partnership (RCEP), probably the largest free trade agreement in history. RCEP and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), concluded in 2018 and also dominated by East Asian members, are the only major multilateral free trade agreements signed under the Trump era. While China already has a number of bilateral trade agreements, this is the first time it has signed a regional multilateral trade pact. The main effect of RCEP is that it has brought together in a single framework the various free trade agreements concluded by ASEAN with the other five countries of Asia and the Pacific. It covers trade in goods, but does little to reduce non-tariff barriers. Most services are excluded, but also agriculture, which is a sensitive sector. It is a «flatter» agreement than the EU`s existing free trade agreements with the region. And it cannot be compared to our own internal market. But there was never any question of that. Many Member States already have free trade agreements between them, but there are restrictions. According to forecasts for 2020, the agreement is expected to increase the global economy by $186 billion.
  Our economic relations with Southeast Asia are strong. For many years, the EU has been the main source of foreign direct investment in ASEAN and one of its main trading partners. We have already concluded important free trade agreements with Singapore and Vietnam, as well as Japan and Korea, and we are in talks with several others, including Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand. These agreements have helped maintain trade despite the pandemic, for example by significantly increasing imports of essential organic and pharmaceutical chemicals from Singapore. The RCEP agreement is proof of ASEAN`s success in placing itself at the center of its region, although the major powers tend to weigh in. ASEAN has also developed an «Indo-Pacific perspective» which, in a context of growing security and political tensions, stresses the need to keep the region open, stable, inclusive and regulated. It is clear that Indopazifik will be the most dynamic region in the world and the center of growth for decades to come. The region`s success in managing the COVID-19 pandemic, certainly compared to Europe and the United States, has further reinforced this trend. Some in Europe may be wondering if we missed it. Is the European Union weaker because 15 other countries have signed a free trade agreement without us? The answer is no. Just as we believe in free and fair trade and multilateralism as a means to achieve it, we can be happy if others follow this path to increase their own prosperity.
And thanks to the growth of the global economy, RCEP will help create more – not less – business opportunities with the region, just as our own single market offers them opportunities. As the EU, we tend to have more ambitious free trade agreements with almost all the countries in the RCEP agreement. Southeast Asia will benefit greatly from RCEP ($19 billion per year until 2030), but less than Northeast Asia, since it already has free trade agreements with RCEP partners. However, rcep could improve access to China`s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) funds and increase the benefits of market access by strengthening transport, energy and communication links. RCEP`s favourable rules of origin will also attract foreign investment. RCEP, often mistakenly referred to as «China-led,» is a triumph of middle-powerED ASEAN diplomacy. The value of a major East Asian trade deal has long been recognized, but neither China nor Japan, the region`s largest economies, have been politically acceptable to the project as architects. The impasse was resolved in 2012 by an agreement brokered by ASEAN, which was part of India, Australia and New Zealand and tasked ASEAN with negotiating the agreement. . .