SINGAPORE — About two weeks after China signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade megadeal with 14 other Asia-Pacific economies, Premier Li Keqiang stressed the need to walk the talk.
“As a member of the RCEP, our country should actively promote the implementation of the agreement with our own actions, safeguard free trade and expand new space for win-win cooperation,” Li said at a State Council executive meeting in Beijing on Dec. 1.
It was a familiar refrain for Chinese leaders eager to present themselves as protectors of the global trading system against protectionists like Donald Trump, despite Beijing’s own restrictions. It also underscored how, in 2021, RCEP could move the COVID-plagued world’s economic center of gravity toward China and Asia as a whole.
“This is accelerating the shift toward Asia,” Jeffrey Sachs, professor and director of Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Development, told Nikkei Asia. “So too is the superior performance of the RCEP region in addressing the pandemic. RCEP countries have vastly outperformed their counterparts in Europe and the Americas, with better governance and more social responsibility of the public.”
Eight years in the making, RCEP clearly raises hopes for the region’s post-pandemic economic future. At the same time, it also raises skepticism about Beijing’s commitment to the ideals Li espoused, doubts about enforcement, and questions about two countries that missed the boat — the U.S. and India.