Signing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement at this juncture is a serious strategic mistake by Asean, Japan, Australia and New Zealand in the overall international context. It raises the question whether China is seen as a threat or as a partner with shared regional and global thinking by member countries. Do they view China’s hegemonic ambitions with concern or not? In their judgement, are these ambitions fuelled by China’s phenomenal economic rise that has provided it the sinews to spurn the legitimate interests of others and be self-aggrandising in all domains? If not, what lessons have these countries learnt from China’s expansionist behaviour, especially under President Xi Jinping?
China’s territorial encroachments and dilatory negotiations over the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (SCS), aggressive actions against Japan in the East China Sea, its conduct in the western Pacific that has compelled Japan, Australia and others to call for freedom of navigation and air flight in the SCS and for respecting international law, are issues inseparable from the scope of economic ties with China. China has stepped up military pressure on Taiwan, intervened in Hong Kong in violation of its treaty with Britain, blatantly wielded the economic weapon against Australia, even slapping additional sanctions just days before the RCEP accord. Both Australia and New Zealand view with concern Chinese inroads into the Pacific islands.
President Trump, however impulsive and erratic, understood China’s game. His trade and technology war against China signified the beginning of a struggle for global power. That Japan, Australia and some Asean countries, as America’s military allies and partners, should be ambivalent about this power struggle and pursue hedging strategies in favour of China may have short term advantage but will prove costly for the future, given the nature of Chinese power,
its authoritarian political system, the suppression of freedoms on which it rests etc. The right approach would be to collectively curb China’s hegemonic ambitions nourished by its economic strength, not facilitate their realisation by opening more economic doors to it.
The Wuhan pandemic exposed the pressing need to end single country dependence on critical supply chains, as China, the world’s manufacturing hub, controls many such chains. On-shoring them, moving them closer to home or to other countries in the region has emerged as the preferred strategy. This should mean reduction of economic ties with China, not expansion, as is the RCEP’s objective.
Signing RCEP when the US is in electoral transition sends a peculiar message, as if the change in the administration there is not material. Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) project, meant to keep China out, was discarded by Trump. Biden is expected to look afresh at its revised incarnation (CPTTP) but he has been pre-empted by the RCEP signature. China, ironically, is the fulcrum of RCEP and US is out. This has implications for the Indo-Pacific concept and the Quad, in terms of the depth of Australia’s and Japan’s commitment to them as initiatives to ring fence China’s disruptive ambitions. Seeking to counter China in the maritime security domain and getting tied to it even more economically and self-limiting the capacity to react to its offensive policies in the future is a contradiction.
For the Chinese, the RCEP is a big diplomatic success. RCEP shows that China can pursue its aggressive political and economic policies without cost, that it cannot be isolated, and that the world cannot delink itself from the Chinese market. Imagine if India had not extricated itself from RCEP and had to sign it in the wake of the Ladakh aggression!
Kawal Sibal, the author is former foreign secretary
Source: The Economic Times