In the mist of the gloom generated by the twin health and economic crises, the birth of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is a ray of light.
More than a million lives have been lost worldwide as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is massive unemployment and entire societies have been devastated. For the 10 ASEAN states and their five partners, three in Northeast Asia and two in the South Pacific, to come together to form RCEP in a situation like this is a bold and brave leap of faith.
They are of course hoping that the new grouping will accelerate their economic recovery since they have all been affected by the twin crises to a greater or lesser degree. As trade barriers are removed and bureaucratic hurdles overcome, there will be a greater flow of affordable goods and services across borders leading to enhanced economic growth and more opportunities for shared prosperity.
RCEP, however, is more than a response to immediate, urgent challenges. It is a tremendous boost to regionalism at a time when the concept and practice are faced with new problems, as witnessed by the experience of the European Union in recent years. Regional cooperation promises the more rational and efficient utilization of new technologies. RCEP may well serve as a platform for this.
It is also the re-assertion of the importance of multilateralism, which has also been subjected to immense pressures in the last few years. The very creation of RCEP is a statement that economies at different levels of progress need not succumb to myopic nationalistic measures in order to preserve their political independence and sovereignty.
Indeed, multilateral arrangements can always be worked out that will help nation-states achieve their economic goals while strengthening their autonomy and independence.
More than contributing to regionalism and multilateralism, RCEP may also pave the way to a positive re-orientation of its member states, which in turn will impact on the global economy and world politics.
Through RCEP, ASEAN states may begin to realize that getting closer to their Northeast neighbors, China, Japan and South Korea, on the one hand, and their South Pacific neighbors Australia and New Zealand, on the other, not only makes economic sense but also denotes deeper geographical roots and cultural meanings that have yet to be discovered.