The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement was finally signed last week, after eight long years involving 31 negotiating rounds and eight ministerial sessions. After all that effort, the poor negotiators found that the achievement was greeted with less than unbridled enthusiasm. This seems a bit unfair to us — anyone can pick holes in the RCEP agreement but overall, it will produce tangible benefits for its members while also creating a few geopolitical ripples.

But what does RCEP change and where does it fall short? The agreement is actually a big deal. It establishes one of the world’s largest free trade areas encompassing 30% of the world’s population, 30% of global economic output and 27% of world trade. Never before has there been a trade deal that brought so many diverse countries with so many diverging interests into a single trade agreement. The deal embraces the 10 countries of Asean, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Just pulling it off is itself a huge achievement. Certainly, in the process of bridging the vast gaps in living standards, economic development and economic models within this large area, it was inevitable that they settled in many cases for the lowest common denominator.

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