BEIJING — After eight years of talks, China and 14 other nations from Japan to New Zealand to Myanmar on Sunday formally signed one of the world’s largest regional free trade agreements, a pact shaped by Beijing partly as a counterweight to U.S. influence in the region.
The agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, is limited in scope. Still, it carries considerable symbolic heft. The pact covers more of humanity — 2.2 billion people — than any previous regional free trade agreement and could help further cement China’s image as the dominant economic power in its neighborhood.
It also comes after a retreat by the United States from sweeping trade deals that reshape global relationships. Nearly four years ago, President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a broader agreement than the RCEP that was widely seen as a Washington-led response to China’s growing sway in the Asia-Pacific region. Joe Biden, the president-elect, has been noncommittal on whether he would join the TPP’s successor.
To some trade experts, this new agreement shows that the rest of the world will not wait around for the United States. The European Union has also pursued trade negotiations at an aggressive pace. As other countries sign new deals, American exporters may gradually lose ground.
“While the United States is currently focused on domestic concerns, including the need to fight the pandemic and rebuild its economy and infrastructure, I’m not sure the rest of the world is going to wait until America gets its house in order,” said Jennifer Hillman, a senior fellow for trade and international political economy at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I think there are going to have to be some responsive actions to what China is doing.”
Because of the pandemic, the signing of the agreement Sunday was unusual, with separate ceremonies held in each of the 15 member countries all linked by video. Each country’s trade minister took turns signing a separate copy of the pact while his or her head of state or head of government stood nearby and watched.
Simultaneously broadcast on a split screen, the different ceremonies offered a glimpse of each country’s political culture. Vietnam, the host nation for the talks this year, and South Korea and Cambodia each had one or two small desktop flags next to their ministers. At the other extreme, China’s ceremony was conducted in front of a wall of five very large, bright red Chinese flags.
Premier Li Keqiang, China’s second-highest official after President Xi Jinping, oversaw the Beijing event. In a statement released by the state news media, he called the pact “a victory of multilateralism and free trade.”
The RCEP encompasses the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.