Signing of RCEP a victory for free trade

By Mitchell Blatt
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, November 24, 2020
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Containers are seen at Dalian port in northeast China's Liaoning province, on Sept. 24, 2020. [Photo/Xinhua]

The United States was left on the outside looking in as 15 Asia-Pacific countries recently joined the world's largest free trade agreement – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The deal brings together 2.2 billion people and one-third of the world's gross domestic product, and shows that the region will move forward on important issues with or without the U.S.

Over the past four years, the U.S. has pursued an angry agenda of militant isolationism paired with unilateral threats directed at its friends and adversaries alike. 

In 2015, the United States was enjoying years of employment growth, an intelligent and honorable president, and relative domestic tranquility. GDP growth that year was 2.9% – the highest it had been in a decade – and the country was nearing the conclusion of negotiations of landmark deals concerning climate change, nuclear proliferation and trade.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would have linked the U.S. with leading economies in Asia and South America and increased trade and prosperity for Americans. Although fiercely debated in Congress, trade promotion authority was ultimately granted to President Obama. The final draft was composed in October 2015, and the deal was signed into law in February the following year. 

Not only did the TPP take down tariffs – making it easier for U.S. exporters to get their products into Japan, Australia and Southeast Asia – it was also seen by some as part of America's strategy to "constrain" China. By increasing the reliance of China's neighbors on trade with America, the U.S. would have more leverage to make demands of them, and get to "write the rules" of trade.

After Donald Trump became president of the United States, one of his first steps was to withdraw the United States from the TPP. The loss of the TPP's biggest economy could have spelled a fatal blow, but the remaining members still recognized the importance of trade. They revived the deal and "suspended 20 provisions from chapters on trade facilitation, investment, services, public procurement, intellectual property rights (IPR), environment and transparency … included earlier in the TPP at the U.S.' insistence," according to the Straits Times.

So, the U.S. is no longer writing the rules of global trade.

In 2018, President Trump publicly pondered "rejoining" the TPP – that is, rejoining an agreement his country was already a member of but just without agreements that benefited U.S. corporate interests. He was just blowing hot air, as he often does.

Trump also erratically withdrew from many other successful treaties that benefited the United States, including the Paris Climate Accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the "Iran deal"), New START, and the Open Skies Treaty.

At the same time, he was attacking foreign countries, including America's long-time allies, and demanding they do things that did not make sense for them to do. How does the U.S. expect to win support for its agenda when it has no intention of cooperating and compromising on the needs of the other side?

In some cases, foreign countries grudgingly acceded. Several European countries that were already becoming skeptical of China placed restrictions on Huawei. Others did not. South Korea still uses Huawei components in some of its 5G systems, rejecting vague U.S. claims about the Chinese tech giant being a security threat.

The world moved on without the U.S.

Seven of the countries in the restored TPP also joined the RCEP. Members of the Paris accord continue to abide by their pledges, and America's European allies refused to join the U.S. in imposing sanctions on Iran.

Trump's slogan of "America First" has turned into "America Alone," with the unemployment rate in the U.S. now nearing 10%. Having ignored the warnings of global health experts and its own experts, it has one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the world. In addition, global trust in the U.S. and its self-proclaimed status as the greatest democracy in the world is at an all-time low.

If the U.S. wants to have influence for its agenda in the coming decade, it needs to go back to the table with honesty, listen to the world, and work with others. This would simply benefit not only the U.S., but also the entire world. From a purely American perspective, the international institutions that the U.S. helped build allow the country to push its own interests. The U.S. ignores the world at its own peril.

Mitchell Blatt is a columnist with For more information please visit:

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