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With the US still absent, Asia and Europe double down on multilateralism

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Vietnam's Industry and Trade Minister Tran Tuan Anh (C) signs as Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (L) witnesses during the signing ceremony of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Agreement during the 37th ASEAN Summit in Hanoi, Vietnam 15 November 2020. (Photo: Reuters/Kham).

In Brief

November 2020 will be remembered as a moment in history of striking contrasts: the United States torn by an internal battle over its future and the rest of the world embracing new multilateral initiatives on pandemics, trade and climate innovation.


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Accelerating multilateral initiatives are a response in Asia and elsewhere to Trump’s destructive fragmentation of the global system and a product of growing, shared eagerness to pick up the agenda of sustainable development and climate solutions, as part of the exit strategy from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Western media is transfixed at once by the promise of a Biden era and Trump’s campaign to undermine the legitimacy of the President-elect’s election victory. It’s a contest that continues to hold the world hostage over the continuing centrality of America to global power, global technology, and global diplomacy.

But Western analysts have missed the resurgence of the multilateral impulse elsewhere. This impulse was palpable in three major events in Asia and Europe this November. The Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity in Korea (5–7 November), the Paris Peace Forum (11–13 November), and the signing of the East Asian Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) on 15 November in a digital meeting hosted by Hanoi mark a big shift in the frontier of world politics and the global order.

In Asia, RCEP is the big event and achievement of 2020. The RCEP agreement, spearheaded by the 10 countries of ASEAN, along with China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, constitutes a major geo-economic and geopolitical development. Although India is not joining the group at this time, and RCEP rules are less advanced in some respects than those of the CPTPP, the conclusion of RCEP has impact on the global order.

RCEP will advance the acceleration of regional economic integration in Asia, and pushes back on Trump’s strategy of decoupling of US allies from China. While Southeast Asian countries, Japan, South Korea and Australia may all be wary of China at the moment and seek diversity in their trade relations, they simply cannot sustain their prosperity without stabilisation of trade relations with China. Asia is criss-crossed by ever intensifying value chains, and China’s still an integral part of that. Vietnam and other ASEAN countries are rising as manufacturing hubs, but that’s a process accompanied by increased imports of intermediary goods from China.

But RCEP is also of global significance. The agreement, signed off in the middle of a pandemic and US–China trade war, reminds the world, first, that East Asian countries, unlike the Americas and Europe, have broadly succeeded in controlling COVID-19. That success, across different types of political regime, with a similar respect for science, expertise and trust in government, was accompanied by general acceptance of mask-wearing and community rules.

Second, it also reminds the world that the biggest trading group in the world economy is doubling down on the rules-based multilateral system. Research by Homi Kharas shows that most of the increase in the global middle class until 2030 will take place in China and Asia.

RCEP also embeds the first trilateral agreement between China, South Korea and Japan, itself a huge deal. The common interests of these three countries have overridden tense geopolitical relations across the Asia Pacific. RCEP underscores the pragmatic efforts of Japan to balance its strong security stance on the South China Sea and in the East China Sea with stability in the bilateral relationship with China. After the completion of the CPTPP, the EU–Japan partnership and the US–Japan agreement, this marks the completion of the Abe trade agenda (even though Japan would have preferred India to join RCEP).

Japan will not put all its eggs in the China basket and will actively support the development of parallel alternative supply chains centered in India and Southeast Asia. Japan is simultaneously a strong supporter of the Quad and of the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ strategy to buttress strong security cooperation against China-related dangers. But RCEP will remove tariffs from 86 per cent of Japanese industrial exports to China and from 92 per cent of its exports to South Korea. Japanese auto-part producers are the biggest winners.

As well, RCEP brings significant institutionalisation to Japan’s economic relations with China, including a new chapter on e-commerce (with a ban on data localisation requirements), rules on government procurement, and rules on intellectual property rights that go beyond WTO rules. The same calculations drive Australia’s readiness to sign RCEP in the midst of a bitter, but hopefully short-lived, trade fight with China.

Two major points emerged from the annual Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity in South Korea. First, there was enormous support across the region for multilateralism, especially the Covax vaccine coalition, sustainable development and the Paris Agreement on climate change. Second was the commitment to regional cooperation beyond political differences, notably between China, South Korea and Japan.

The prominent feature of the Paris Peace Forum was the high-level panels designed to support the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A) mechanism and associated financing pledges. All 450 development institutions from around the world joined in support of a green recovery from COVID-19 in a Common Declaration. The Beijing-based New Development Bank is part of the Executive Committee.

The Asian presence was strong with China’s President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on message with a strongly cooperative approach to global problems. The leaders of Vietnam, Thailand and New Zealand also delivered high-profile speeches.

While the United States is gradually emerging from the institutional erosion of  the past four years, Asia and the world are increasingly coalescing around a multilateral agenda focused on trade, global cooperation to defeat COVID-19, sustainable development and climate change. Tools and coalitions are being built. And Asia is increasingly codifying its own regional integration in the wake of COVID-19. The hope is that the Biden administration will rapidly join in and embrace this consensus without being paralysed by its rivalry with China, opposition in the Senate or ugly post-Trump politics.

Yves Tiberghien is Professor of Political Science at the University of British Columbia and Co-Chair of Vision20. He is author of a forthcoming book on COVID-19 geopolitics in Asia.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on the novel coronavirus crisis and its impact.

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