Despite the COVID-19 pandemic exposing the dangers of global corporate control of production chains and their failure to develop national economies, the leaders of 15 countries, on November 15, 2020, signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. It is clear for everyone to see that the government and the public sector must be responsible and take the lead in the present crisis. The RCEP leaders however asserted the opposite – global corporations must be given free rein over our futures.
The expansive RCEP is a trade and investment liberalization deal amid growing protectionism worldwide even among the advanced capitalist powers. But like all free trade agreements before it, RCEP is unbalanced and will most of all benefit the economic powers whose big corporations can dominate the underdeveloped countries while at the same time fending of challenges in their home countries. China, whose economy accounts for over half of RCEP, will be the biggest winner along with Japan and South Korea.
Peoples’ action across the original 16 countries involved – India, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, China, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia – forced:
The withdrawal of India in November 2019;
The removal of investor-state dispute settlement for at least two years after the RCEP comes into force (10:18);
Restricting monopolies on medicine to the 20 years provided in the 1995 WTO TRIPS Agreement; and
Many provisions unenforceable even by state-to-state dispute mechanisms – i.e. Government Procurement (16.8), Economic and Technical Cooperation (15.7), Competition (13.9) Electronic Commerce (12.17), Anti-Dumping (7.16), Technical Standards (6.14), and Sanitary and PhytoSanitary Measures (5.17).
The peoples’ protests, most forcefully in India and Malaysia, influenced the overall outcome even if RCEP was still passed. This shows the seeds of an alternative people-driven pathway to environmentally sustainable economic development for the poorest in this vast region – the farmers and fisherfolks, the Indigenous Peoples, the women, the workers and youths.
The International League of Peoples’ Struggle will intensify its efforts to sharpen analysis of RCEP and continued liberalization, and will bring together ever greater numbers in social movements to change the direction of economic deals from global corporate exploitation to people-driven development.
Signing RCEP at a time of a global pandemic is a perfect recipe for disaster. The RCEP text on trade in goods contradicts current government efforts to create local industrial capacity for COVID-19 PPE, tests kits, treatments and vaccines. RCEP rules will integrate participating countries further into regional production chains, which will be dominated by Japanese, South Korean and Chinese corporations. It will discourage government assistance for local industries at a time when even more active industry policies are needed to rebuild jobs and economies post-pandemic.
The RCEP rules on investment, services, e-commerce and competition reach beyond traditional trade issues of market access through tariffs and quotas. They entrench increased foreign investment in essential services like health, education, water, energy, telecommunications and financial services, and restrict the ability of future governments to regulate them in the public interest. RCEP rules freeze regulation at current levels for most services unless they are listed as exceptions. They will increase pressure for further privatization of public services. These rules suit the needs of international investors but will restrict the flexibility needed to deal with future crises like pandemics and climate change.
The RCEP has no commitments to internationally recognised labour rights and environmental standards which RCEP governments have endorsed through the United Nations and the International Labour Organisation. This is a glaring failure. Despite massive abuse of labour rights and serious environmental impacts in the region, the RCEP has no provisions to deal with issues like forced labour or child labour, and no mention of climate change. Without such standards the RCEP will contribute to a race-to-the-bottom amid post-pandemic recession.
The RCEP comes into force 60 days after at least six of the ASEAN states and three of the non-ASEAN states have ratified the agreement through their constitutional processes. It only applies to the ratifying states. This is expected to take about two years. A ratifying state can withdraw from the RCEP by giving six months notice.
Campaigning against ratification of the RCEP in each country is the next phase of the peoples’ movement for genuine democracy and development.