Wednesday (Nov. 18th): Chinese Multilateralism, the Chinese way

Li Keqiang

Name? Li Keqiang

Westphalian identity? Chinese

Age? 65

Why is he in the news? As Premier of the State Council of China, Li oversaw Beijing’s signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (R.C.E.P) this past Sunday.

Why do we care? The pact covers more people–2.2 billion–than any previous regional free trade agreement as it includes the 10 ASEAN member states as well as Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan and South Korea. Lots of people = lots of trade = lots of money! 

Why should you care? As Li stated, the agreement represents “a victory of multilateralism and free trade;” a true milestone in a year significantly marked by isolation. 

Who else cares? The U.S. of course. The RCEP has largely been shaped by Beijing as a counterweight to American influence in the region. It’s realization among nearly all countries in Southeast Asia could further cement China’s image as the dominant economic power in the neighborhood. While Washington may attempt to counter this when Biden assumes office in January, President Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) doesn’t exactly start the U.S. off strong.

Any further comments? If anything, this new trade agreement shows that the rest of the world; particularly China, will not wait around for the U.S. to focus once again on international affairs. The European Union, China, ASEAN, the UK, and many others have pursued trade negotiations at a normal if not faster pace–leaving Trump and the rest of the U.S. to the “America First” policy. That said, Trump seems to have one ally in Southeast Asia–India aka Narendra Modi. Modi pulled out of the RCEP negotiations in July and relations between India and China have continued to deteriorate since amid clashes on their shared border. As a result, Modi and Trump have increased relations, leaving Li (and Xi) to seek other partners through the RCEP.

Sarah McFadden

Team Member of Research & Analysis