World’s largest trade deal: Who are the winners and losers?
The world watched on as Chinese Minister of Commerce Zhong Shan put pen to paper on the world’s largest trade agreement alongside trade ministers from 14 other countries.
All 15 members of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) were gathered virtually last November to sign the landmark agreement, concluding eight years and 31 rounds of negotiation.
Comprising the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea, the RCEP represents about a third of the global GDP and population.
More importantly, it symbolizes integration after years of trade wars and protectionism. The trade deal comes amid a raging pandemic when there are signs of countries seeking more effective international cooperation to aid economic recovery.
New trade agreements, including the RCEP, signal continued government support for market integration in much of the world, according to the DHL Global Connectedness Index 2020 — a study measuring the development of trade, capital, information, and people flows at the global, regional, and national levels.
The pact is not considered a breakthrough in terms of immediate economic gains. That is because many of the members already have trade agreements with each other. So, tariffs are already low, if not removed, on many exports.
However, the RCEP will improve participating countries’ market access to goods and services and facilitate trade and investment across the region. Particularly worth noting is how the deal will align rules of origin and bring members together into a single production chain.
“Asia Pacific is already a hotbed of a complex maze of free trade agreements. Many of these FTAs have differing rules which are complicated and disincentivize their use. RCEP simplifies this into a single set of rules of origin, standardizing the requirements across the board and leveling the playing field for all,” explained Raymond Yee, Vice President, Customs and Regulatory Affairs, DHL Express Asia Pacific.
“The direct benefits, particularly in the form of lower tariffs, are not always available or so obvious,” said Deborah Elms, founder and Executive Director of the Asian Trade Center, a Singapore-based think tank. “But having one rule of origin in place will make a substantial difference.”
Then there is the long-term economic opportunity. According to an analysis by the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE), the pact could add US$500 billion (€414 billion) a year to world trade when it moves into full swing in 2030. And it would boost annual trade among members by US$428 billion (€357 billion).
But not everyone will get a piece of this pie. Here is a rundown of the deal’s biggest winners and losers.
The country is no doubt the biggest winner of the pact. The PIIE study estimates that as the largest of all members, China will get an US$85 billion (€71 billion) annual boost to its GDP from increased trade by 2030.
But China’s win is far more than just economics, especially considering that the deal will give it only 0.3 percent extra real income a year. Many observers see RCEP as a China-led bloc, despite ASEAN’s pivotal role in bringing the grouping together.
From that perspective, the RCEP deal is a geopolitical victory for China and a sign of waning American influence in Asia Pacific following its non-participation in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
“Even more important than economic gains, however, may be the effects of East Asia’s regional turn on China’s prospects for leadership in the region,” wrote the PIIE study’s authors Peter Petri and Michael Plummer.
Analysts from Citi Research went as far as calling RCEP “a coup for China,” saying that the “diplomatic messaging of RCEP may be just as important as the economics.”
DHL Global Connectedness Index 2020 Ranking: China
Rank: 70 (-1)
Depth (International flows relative to total activity): 150 (-2)
Breadth (Distribution of international flows across countries): 18 (-1)
China remains a strongly domestic-oriented economy. Its international flows are comparatively smaller than its structural characteristics (population, GDP per capita, and geography) suggest they could be. Since deeper global connectedness is associated with faster economic growth, China has untapped potential to benefit from strengthening its connections with the rest of the world.
RCEP will deliver Japan’s first ever free trade agreement (FTA) with China and South Korea, two of its largest trading partners. And that alone makes Japan a clear winner.
“These three tigers of East Asia contribute significantly to overall trade within Asia Pacific, not to mention these countries being critical parts of regional and global value chains,” said Yee. The three countries have had talks on a proposed trilateral agreement, but negotiations had stalled in recent years.
With RCEP, Japan will likely see tariffs eliminated on 86 percent of its industrial exports to China and 92 percent of exports to South Korea. Overall, the deal is predicted to bring Japan US$48 billion (€40 billion) in annual income by 2030, particularly benefiting its automotive and auto parts industries.
DHL Global Connectedness Index 2020 Ranking: Japan
Rank: 44 (+3)
Depth (International flows relative to total activity): 126 (-4)
Breadth (Distribution of international flows across countries): 6 (-2)
Japan ranks in the top 10 underperformers for the depth category. Japan’s depth is higher with respect to outward relative to inward flows. This pattern also shows up in Japan’s trade surplus as well as its foreign direct investment.
Overall, Japan invests much more abroad than it is receives in direct investment from abroad. In fact, Japan ranks 168th of 169 for inward FDI stock, while placing 13th of 158 in FDI outflows.
The East Asian country’s win mainly comes in the form of a forecast US$23 billion (€19.2 billion) extra income by 2030. But it might get more through improved relations, particularly with Japan.
The two countries have had political conflicts that have spilled over into their trade relations. Their recent row led Japan to tighten its rules for exporting three important chemicals to South Korea.
Their greater economic integration could cause the two countries to think twice before responding to political tensions with punitive trade actions, according to Kyle Ferrier, a Fellow and Director of Academic Affairs at the Korea Economic Institute of America.
“While further cooperation on trade cannot be an effective substitute for addressing difficult historical issues, it may help incentivize leaders in both Tokyo and Seoul to avert future downward spirals in the relationship,” he said.
According to Elms, RCEP is a pragmatic grouping — members realize that conflict in one area does not automatically preclude cooperation or consultation in another.
“The grouping is largely made up of export-oriented countries that recognize the benefits of both trade and keeping options open,” said Elms.
DHL Global Connectedness Index 2020 Ranking: South Korea
Rank: 22 (+1)
Depth (International flows relative to total activity): 78 (+6)
Breadth (Distribution of international flows across countries): 5 (0)
Considering South Korea’s export-led economy, the signing of RCEP could further enhance its level of global connectedness as it opens up more opportunities for multilateral trade between 15 member countries.
“The agreement will foster substantial growth for South Korea’s carmakers and steelmakers. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and technology firms, such as online games and entertainment businesses, are also anticipated to benefit from a possible expansion of their presence into Southeast Asia,” said ByungKoo Han, Country Manager, DHL Express Korea.
“The lowering of barriers to foreign direct investment for some member countries in certain industries will further boost up the international flow of capital from South Korea, which in turn will improve its level of global connectedness,” he added.
Without an existing free trade deal with ASEAN, the absence of the U.S. from the bloc will reduce its trade opportunities in Asia Pacific. Collectively, non-members like the U.S. could lose as much as US$48 billion (€40 billion) a year from reduced trade with RCEP members.
But more critical than any economic loss is the potential for the deal to further diminish American influence in the region as RCEP members integrate and become more interdependent.
“Through the prism of U.S.–China rivalry, Washington has clearly lost out in the present situation,” said Rocky Intan, a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Indonesia.
However, things may change under President-elect Joe Biden’s administration. “We make up 25 percent of the world’s trading capacity, of the economy of the world. We need to be aligned with the other democracies – another 25 percent or more – so that we can set the rules of the road,” said Biden about the RCEP last November.
DHL Global Connectedness Index 2020 Ranking: United States
Rank: 37 (-2)
Depth (International flows relative to total activity): 117 (-6)
Breadth (Distribution of international flows across countries): 2 (0)
The U.S. continues to be the largest economy in the world in market exchange rate terms, and its size and location contribute to its focus on domestic rather than international flows. The flows that do cross the U.S.’ borders, however, are among the most broadly distributed, reflecting the U.S.’ strong ties to countries both within and beyond its region.
Despite its poor performance on trade depth, the U.S. shows strength within the capital and information measurements of the index, ranking in the top 10 of both.
India is also not part of the agreement due to perceptions that RCEP would provide more disadvantages than benefits. In particular, there were concerns that joining the bloc would create a de facto trade pact with China and flood India’s market with cheap Chinese goods, worsening its deficit with China.
India quit RCEP negotiations in 2019, a decision that could cost it US$6 billion (€5 billion) in annual income by 2030 and potentially make it a less attractive alternative for production.
“The exit of India from the negotiations is a significant loss for RCEP. The size and dynamism of the Indian economy would have provided significant boost to RCEP’s attractiveness,” said Yee.
The country can still choose to join the bloc as soon as it comes into force. However, Elms believes India is not coming back. “Not under [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi and probably not in my lifetime. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but it will take time for India to return, if it happens at all,” she said.
DHL Global Connectedness Index 2020 Ranking: India
Rank: 81 (0)
Depth (International flows relative to total activity): 162 (+1)
Breadth (Distribution of international flows across countries): 16 (-1)
In the years following the global financial crisis, India was a significant overperformer on the index, but over time, its score has come closer to expectations based on structural characteristics. This reflects continued outperformance on breadth and increasing underperformance on depth, where it was once an outperformer.
Stronger performance on the depth dimension of the index is associated with faster economic growth, so India could likely benefit from turning this trend around.
Although more than 70 percent of export shipments from Taiwan to RCEP countries are already tariff-free, export-dependent Taiwan will miss out on trade opportunities with RCEP members. By the PIIE’s estimate, Taiwan would lose 0.4 percent in annual real income from reduced trade.
Taiwanese economic authorities are also wary of the intense competition its petrochemical, upstream textile, and machine tool industries would face from Japanese and South Korean producers.
With Japan’s and South Korea’s lower tariffs under RCEP, their products would enjoy a competitive advantage in China.
“Most of the ASEAN countries already have FTAs with Japan, South Korea, and China,” said Taiwanese Minister of Economic Affairs Wang Mei-hua. “The bigger deal is, with RCEP, China and Japan now effectively have an FTA, as do South Korea and Japan.”
According to the Economic and Trade Negotiation Office of the Executive Yuan, the government is working on alternative options including joining the CPTPP, of which many of the member countries are Taiwan’s top trade partners. The office predicts that Taiwan will be able to expand its export market and drive GDP growth by at least 0.52 percent if they successfully join the agreement.
DHL Global Connectedness Index 2020 Ranking: Taiwan
Rank: 19 (+5)
Depth (International flows relative to total activity): 22 (+3)
Breadth (Distribution of international flows across countries): 35 (+1)
“In the Asia Pacific region, Taiwan’s overall performance is comparatively stable in terms of regulations, policies, and overall economic environment,” said Yung C. Ooi, Managing Director, DHL Express Taiwan.
“Being primarily an export market, Taiwanese companies have always been able to adapt quickly to changing environments. This year’s pandemic has also proven that Taiwan can manage public health crises exceptionally well, which in a way enhances the competitive advantage of Taiwanese companies,” he added.
Find out more about the individual country rankings in DHL’s Global Connectedness Index 2020: