Commentary: Don’t be too quick to dismiss the economic benefits of RCEP for Southeast Asia

SINGAPORE: What is the economic impression of an enormous new regional commerce settlement for collaborating nations? 

ASEAN member states are presently re-examining this query after a brand new report out of the UN Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) steered that the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) might be dangerous to many in the area.

The report, launched two weeks in the past, posited that beneath the RCEP, ASEAN nations will see a decline of their stability of commerce as they’re probably to import extra items than export to different RCEP member nations, particularly China, which, as a extra environment friendly exporter, might profit from commerce diversion.

The conclusions of this report are extremely probably to be mistaken. ASEAN will discover new economic stimulus coming from being half of the world’s largest free commerce settlement with 15 members throughout Asia.


Often, poor modelling ends in poor judgements about the impression of commerce agreements.  But getting good estimates of the impression of any commerce deal is far more durable than may be appreciated.

Typically, the best component of a free commerce settlement (FTA) to see and measure is reductions in tariff charges. All FTAs work to decrease tariff charges at the border as a manner of serving to present benefits to collaborating members and decreasing prices. A discount in tariffs ought to stimulate higher commerce flows.

Singapore RCEP signing

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (left) and Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing at the 4th Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Summit on Nov 15, 2020. (Photo: Ministry of Communications and Information)

Not each good that may seem to be eligible for tariff cuts will truly qualify for these benefits. Products have to be manufactured in ways in which match the standards for every commerce settlement and embody adequate content material from inside member states.

As an instance, hand cleaning soap that accommodates a excessive share of imported content material might not be eligible for claiming decrease tariffs that in any other case seem to be on supply.

Even if a product qualifies, corporations have to apply for decrease tariff charges as the FTA preferences will not be granted robotically.

As a end result, no FTA has ever achieved full tariff liberalisation the place all items getting into the nation as half of an FTA settlement are granted free or lowered tariffs. 

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However, economic modelling usually assumes that each probably eligible good presently captured by commerce circulation statistics will obtain no matter tariff benefits which might be promised in the deal. 

Models are additionally usually based mostly on current commerce profiles. In different phrases, to get at the economic impression of tariff reductions and elimination, a mannequin begins with current commerce information. However, one key level of an FTA is to unleash new alternatives for commerce and to enhance on current commerce agreements or frameworks. 

Products that used to face vital tariffs had been unlikely to present up in current commerce circulation particulars or, if such items had been traded, the complete quantity of commerce was probably to be small. 

For instance, if shampoo, frozen seafood, or kids’s pyjamas had been charged 15 per cent to 20 per cent tariffs in the pre-FTA world, corporations making such gadgets would most likely not have bought a lot. If tariffs drop, firms may instantly discover vital new demand in the companion market.

But such new commerce flows in shampoo, seafood or attire is not going to present up in the economic modelling of current FTAs, as UNCTAD has executed, as they’re new good points that may solely kick in later.


Determining the impression of the RCEP or any FTA additionally is determined by current situations in different methods.

Asian governments, together with ASEAN members, have been enthusiastic members in FTAs. 


Leaders pose for a gaggle photograph throughout the third Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Summit in Bangkok on Nov 4, 2019, on the sidelines of the thirty fifth ASEAN Summit. (Photo: AFP/Manan VATSYAYANA)

RCEP itself was constructed on the foundation of 5 current ASEAN+1 commerce agreements which were mixed and refashioned into one.  The internet result’s that there are actually lots of of differing kinds of commerce preparations that cross the area from bilateral commitments to giant regional offers.

RCEP benefits – even for assessing simply tariff cuts – subsequently rely upon evaluating RCEP to different current commerce offers.  

Firms may already be having fun with duty-free remedy for their merchandise beneath different FTAs, like ASEAN-China. Economic fashions that have a look at the RCEP in silo, as the UNCTAD research has executed, subsequently battle to seize this degree of complexity.

In addition, all FTAs embody phased-in commitments.  In different phrases, tariff cuts will not be immediately granted for all merchandise, however typically progressively alter over time. 

Hence evaluating FTA benefits to RCEP commitments requires a cautious evaluation of timing. The first day or entry into drive for RCEP might not evaluate favourably to current FTA benefits, however after tariffs are absolutely applied, the variations might be substantial.

Tariffs are at all times overweighted in economic fashions as they’re best to see and depend.  But RCEP, like different complete FTAs, contains considerably extra than simply tariff reductions. 

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Changes in customs procedures, to identify only one component of RCEP, can have an excellent higher impression on a agency than a discount in tariffs as the price of delays at the border can be fairly excessive and infrequently hit the backside line greater than a tariff charge adjustment. 

A dedication to transfer commerce documentation online or clear categorical cargo inside 6 hours might end up to be the most necessary level of RCEP for many firms.

The providers and, particularly, funding commitments embedded in RCEP are substantial however onerous to present in lots of fashions. Data on providers commerce will not be nice. Understanding how new market entry or improved safety of investments may matter to corporations is very tough.

FILE PHOTO: Containers are seen at the Yangshan Deep Water Port, part of the Shanghai Free Trade Zo

FILE PHOTO: Containers are seen at the Yangshan Deep Water Port, half of the Shanghai Free Trade Zone, in Shanghai, China February 13, 2017. REUTERS/Aly Song

How can a mannequin determine what profit to assign to improved market entry for panorama architects or preschool schooling suppliers or graphic designers?  How beneficial is best readability on funding guidelines?

While corporations are probably to respect many of the parts in RCEP, economic modeling executed by UNCTAD understates or ignores these facets of the settlement, which doesn’t enable one to get a complete view of the total benefits supplied by the RCEP. 

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In brief, it appears clear that RCEP will ship economic benefits to collaborating member states. Exactly capturing and quantifying the probably increase in commerce and economic development for any given member or particular sector may be very onerous to obtain. 

Economic fashions that declare to accomplish that with authority ought to be taken with a big handful of salt.

Dr Deborah Elms is Executive Director, Asian Trade Centre, Singapore.


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