By Dr. Rommel C. Banlaoi*
On 15 November 2020, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, all members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with five of its strategic partners, namely China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) to promote free trade among participating nations. RCEP is now the biggest free trade arrangement in the whole world, much bigger than the European Economic Community (EEC) of the European Union (EU).
There is no doubt that RCEP represents the monumental triumph of ASEAN centrality in the emerging regional order. It also demonstrates the success of ASEAN’s middle power diplomacy amidst major power rivalries in Asia. Connecting 30% of the world’s total population, RCEP is projected to generate USD 500 billion to world trade by 2030 with annual contribution to world’s income of at least USD 209 billion beginning in 2021. If RCEP can effectively harmonize its effort with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), RCEP and the BRI can create the world’s only mega region that can truly shape the future destiny of the humanity. As such, RCEP has the enormous potential to shape the future of global economic and geopolitical order.
RCEP can offer many opportunities to promote practical cooperation between China and the Philippines.
First, RCEP provides the strong legal and regional foundation for China and the Philippines to sustain the positive momentum of their friendly bilateral ties even beyond the administration of President Rodrigo R. Duterte whose term will expire in 2022. Being a signatory to RCEP, the Philippines can effectively sustain its bilateral cooperation with China in the post-Duterte period. Though RCEP is multilateral in nature, it provides opportunities to establish a strong network of bilateral ties among participating nations. Thus, RCEP can strengthen the institutionalization of Philippines-China relations not only at the government-to-government level but also at the state-to-state level. In this case, RCEP can realize the desire of China and the Philippines to pursue comprehensive strategic cooperation in the 21st century even after the term of President Duterte.
Second, RCEP includes all ASEAN claimants in the South China Sea. With the objective of RCEP to link the strengths of participating nations in the area of agriculture, manufacturing, technology and natural resources, RCEP can provide opportunities for claimant nations in the South China Sea to deepen their economic cooperation, which is essential to promote friendship and cooperation in the South China Sea. RCEP can facilitate China and ASEAN to promote the protection of natural resources in the South China Sea through marine environmental research, marine environmental protection, and sustainable fishery management. Through the various mechanisms to be created by RCEP, China and ASEAN can also expand their cooperation in the South China Sea to cover disaster management at sea, search and rescue operations, crisis prevention, and safety of navigation, which are all needed for regional economic cooperation to flourish in the RCEP region.
In this context, RCEP can further encourage China and the Philippines to pursue bilateral cooperation in the South China Sea like their planned fishery cooperation and joint development of natural gas and oil. RCEP can, therefore, provide opportunities for the peaceful management, if not yet total resolution, of existing conflicts in the South China Sea. In turn, peace and stability in the South China Sea can provide a favorable environment for RCEP to realize its overall economic objectives.
Third, RCEP can also facilitate China’s involvement in the BIMP-EAGA program. BIMP-EAGA refers to the East Asian Growth Area involving Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. RCEP and the BIMP-EAGA have many complementary goals that China can participate, particularly in priority areas that aim to promote efficient and secure trade. With RCEP, China can do more things to support the BIMP-EAGA initiative in order to pursue secure trade in this sub-region, particularly in the Sulu and Celebes Seas.
Fourth, RCEP can provide opportunities for China and the Philippines to work with other member nations to implement the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) to transform our world, particularly in addressing poverty and hunger exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, RCEP can use the SDG as a blueprint “to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all” its members.
With all these opportunities, there is a concomitant need for RCEP to further strengthen its agenda in boosting people-to-people ties by building an inclusive network of NGO and civil society organizations advancing human welfare, sustainable development, gender equality, and the protection of vulnerable communities and marginalized sectors. The China NGO Network for International Exchanges (CNIE) and the Silk Road NGO Cooperation Network (SIRONET) need counterparts in RCEP, which can be called RCEP NGO Network for International Exchanges (RNIE) or RCEP NGO Cooperation Network (RNCN) in order to promote and strengthen people-people contacts in this new region.
Since ASEAN centrality is the cornerstone of RCEP, the concept of Peoples ASEAN can also be extended to RCEP to make this regional grouping more people-oriented while being state-led. There is no doubt that RCEP will benefit the business and the corporate sectors among participating economies. For the people to also enjoy the benefits, RCEP needs to develop and fortify its people’s agenda by implementing programs that will address the development needs of factory workers, rural farmers, fishers, urban poor communities, indigenous peoples, and other marginalized sectors of the society.
Finally, it is also imperative for RCEP to solidify its non-traditional security agenda, particularly in combating transnational organized crimes and international terrorism. A strong security agenda in non-traditional areas can pursue the strong desire of RCEP members to enjoy a more peaceful and secure world that they can share today and in the future.
Speech delivered at the China-ASEAN NGO Online Seminar marking the 17th China ASEAN Expo held in Nanning, China on 27 November 2020.
The author is the President of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies (PACS) and Chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research (PIPVTR). He teaches at the Department of International Studies at Miriam College, the Philippines.