Under RCEP, with 16 member countries involved, making a chicken pie should be quite easy with content inside members. The ROO threshold could be quite high without unduly hampering the ability of firms to comply with the rules. Of course, not every product is a chicken pie. This is why RCEP negotiators are working off what are called product-specific ROOs to ensure that the ROOs make sense for different types of products. The rules for chemicals should be different than the rules for textiles which should be different than the rules for pies. But all should ultimately be crafted to allow firms to source across the 16 member states without too much hassle. The point of the agreement is to facilitate trade in the region. It should help unlock new opportunities for companies to make pies or juice or plastics. These rules should work for large and small firms by avoiding cumulation rules that add unnecessary complexity by asking companies to calculate value addition by stops in the supply chain. The ROOs are an important element in getting the final RCEP agreement to do what it is meant to do—facilitate trade better across the 16 members.
From PM Lee’s speech: Thus, short of universal trade agreements, we should at least strive for regional or pluri-lateral arrangements. This may be a second best solution, but it is a practical way to incrementally build support for lower trade barriers and higher standards, which can then be adopted by other countries. This was the rationale behind the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The US originally came on board the TPP because it saw the strategic benefits, although it ultimately withdrew. Fortunately, the remaining 11 members were able to preserve nearly all that had been negotiated, and so the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) is now in force. I am glad that more countries have expressed interest to join the CPTPP, including South Korea, Thailand and the UK. China is also watching the CPTPP carefully. They are not ready to join now, but I hope that they will seriously consider doing so sometime in the future. Similarly, I hope one day it will become politically possible for a US administration to rethink the US’ position, and recognise that it stands to gain, economically and strategically, from becoming a member of the partnership that it played such a leading role in designing. Meanwhile, countries in the Asia Pacific are working on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The RCEP has a different footprint from the CPTPP. It covers all the key countries on the western side of the Pacific, including Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia, and also importantly India, Australia and New Zealand. This inclusive configuration minimises the risk of the RCEP being misperceived as a bloc that excludes the US and its friends. With such a wide range of participants, RCEP standards are naturally less ambitious than the CPTPP’s, and the deal is also much harder to negotiate. Nonetheless, I hope the participants can take the final step to complete the RCEP by this year, or if not, as soon as the domestic politics of the key players allow.
This was supposed to be the year that the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade negotiations finally wrapped up. Once again, it will not happen. The 16 parties involved (Australia, Brunei, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam) have been talking since early 2013. After 24 formal rounds, at least 9 ministerials, multiple informal meetings, and annual leader’s meetings, RCEP remains a work in progress. Why is it taking so long to get an agreement? The short answer is two-fold—a lack of sufficient political will and serious technical challenges in bridging the gaps between widely different member states. The lack of political will seems surprising to many outsiders. After all, at a time of rising global trade tensions, surely this is the best time to lock down an agreement in Asia to keep trade lanes open for mostly export-dependent trading states?
Having negotiations just over rules will require flexibility by members because it will be much harder for members to return home and clearly point to “gains” from WTO changes. In many places, adjustments to specific provisions could even lead to short term challenges. But without any way to address legitimate demands by many members to more accurately reflect the situation in the global trade regime in 2018 and beyond, the system itself is under increasing threat. We have forgotten how important the WTO has become to the business world. It operates like air. It is only when it is missing that it becomes obvious how much it was needed. Without creativity and flexibility by all members, the WTO is at risk of evaporating. The focus ought to be on updating the global rule book, rather than increasingly carving up and out smaller and smaller bits of the economy to be tailored for various member interests.
While overall rules for standards and conformity assessment procedures in RCEP are necessary to reducing non-tariff barriers in Asia and facilitating trade, the example of cosmetics shows why sectoral approaches are also important. Individual industries face particular challenges that cannot always be handled through generalized rules. Cosmetics firms need to know which substances can, and which substances cannot, be included in products prior to manufacture. Government officials are not always well positioned—on their own—to know the answers to such questions as which coloring agents might usefully be included in cosmetic products in the first place. Hence it is also important to include industry representatives in the creation of rules and regulations. Government should have the final say, but there is clearly a role for industry in crafting sensible policies that apply to a particular sector.