Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is a proposed grouping that is centered around ten members of ASEAN and includes the format of ASEAN +6, which includes China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India. ASEAN already has free trade agreements (FTA) of varying types with the six regional economies and the objective of RCEP is to combine those into one single comprehensive FTA that would harmonise the existing arrangements. This indeed would be a challenging task.
On the other hand, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a proposed regional free trade agreement (FTA) that includes Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States, and Vietnam. While the RCEP is perceived as China-dominated grouping (though with the centrality of ASEAN), TPP is viewed as an American driven process which has geo-strategic objectives besides the economic significance of the grouping.
It can also be easily said that both may be competing for almost the same set of countries becoming its members and they also have similar agenda. Some of the ASEAN members are also members of the TPP besides having a network of FTAs at the bilateral level with many other countries.
Further, while RCEP differentiates between the different levels of development while going into the issues of protection of domestic industries etc and introduction of preferential tariffs and non-tariff barriers especially for the least developed ASEAN members, the TPP is expected to go in for more stringent rules with which developing countries may not be comfortable with. One of the Guiding Principles of RCEP states that it “will have broader and deeper engagement with significant improvements over the existing ASEAN+1 FTAs, while recognizing the individual and diverse circumstances of the participating countries”.
The TPP, on the other hand, has proposed to link trade, economic and investment issues with labour laws, environmental protection and Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) besides other regulatory and technical issues and work towards WTO plus standards. This means that TPP will enforce more stringent rules especially concerning labour and environment than the WTO guidelines. This may not rhyme with the interests and approaches of most of the ASEAN+ 6 members towards trade and commerce issues.
Even while moving towards RCEP, there were geo-politics involved when China was only keen to include ASEAN, Japan and South Korea (ASEAN+3) leaving out India, Australia and New Zealand. Japan, on the other hand prevailed upon China to forge the multilateral grouping based on ASEAN+6.
Further, it is not the political competition between US and China that would influence a country to join one group or the other but it would be practical economics that might move a country to join one or the other grouping or may be both as some countries have already decided to do so. However, with Singapore, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Japan, Australia and New Zealand already in the TPP negotiations, a certain level of political orientation in their decision to join TPP may be perceived. It is possible that maritime disputes in South China and East China Sea may have had impact on some of the members of ASEAN’s entry into TPP. Philippines, another ASEAN, member is considering entering into negotiations with TPP. There is also an ongoing debate on whether ASEAN members joining TPP would weaken the RCEP.
However, it is also possible that pressure from TPP may have a positive impact on ASEAN and its partners to find a modus vivendi in intra-ASEAN plus 6 trade and economic differences and usher in the ASEAN Economic Community by end of 2015.
TPP is a platform which excludes many other countries especially the largest regional economy of China. Though in principle there is no bar against China to join the TPP, yet its many clauses on trade, labour, environment and capital account would prevent China from becoming its member.
That TPP is the economic component of its pivot to Asia or rebalance to Asia has been stated by authoritative US interlocutors and mentioned in the US documents. Even though TPP initiative has origins in 2005, it has now become a part of the US Asia Pacific strategy. TPP is perceived to offer several economic, diplomatic, and strategic benefits to the US. It is expected to provide access to growing markets of Asia, stimulate US exports growth, protect IPR; diplomatically, it will demonstrate US commitment and engagement in the region; strategically, the interest of the countries in the region for maintaining free flow of trade through SLOCs would increase and they would work together to reduce potential risks/threats to such trade.
There has been very little debate in India about the merits of RCEP versus TPP though India has concluded FTA with ASEAN in goods and services. FTA in services is yet to be operationalized. RCEP does offer India a good opportunity to intensify its engagement not only with the ASEAN but also with its other partners in the rubric of ASEAN+6 which would further complement its Look East Policy. India remains uncomfortable with some of the rules of TPP relating to environmental and labour laws and IPR issues which at the current level of development may have a negative impact on India’s trade.
At the same time, the US has been saying that India is an important part or an essential lynchpin of its Asia Pacific strategy. Joe Bidden, the US Vice President, during his visit to Mumbai in his remarks invited India, though somewhat indirectly, to join America’s TPP effort. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, after his visit to Japan in May this year, had remarked that India is studying implications of joining TPP and was generally non-committal on benefits or otherwise of the same.
Evidently, India, like some of the ASEAN members, has options to join both. TPP would include the largest economy besides many other fast growing economies. It has also the potential to become the largest FTA with the realisation of the proposed Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership that would include US and European Union. Since TPP is a living agreement, India may decide to join the TPP later after looking at how it develops. India would be more inclined to go in for the economic benefits that can be reaped from joining such groupings rather than any intangible strategic benefits.