While You Weren't Looking

The World’s Largest Trade Agreement Doesn’t Include the United States

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership signals China’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific.

China's Premier Li Keqiang looks on as Chinese Minister of Commerce Zhong Shan signs the the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade pact at the online ASEAN summit on Nov. 15.
China's Premier Li Keqiang looks on as Chinese Minister of Commerce Zhong Shan signs the the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade pact at the online ASEAN summit on Nov. 15. NHAC NGUYEN/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to While You Weren’t Looking, Foreign Policy’s weekly update on emerging global stories.

Here’s what we’re watching this week: Fifteen countries—not including the United States—sign the world’s largest trade agreement, Islamic State-aligned insurgents step up their attacks in northern Mozambique, and Peru sees three presidents in one week.

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New Asian Trade Deal Pushes West to Margins

On Sunday, 15 countries in the Asia-Pacific region signed the world’s largest trade agreement, which is expected to accelerate a shift in global trade toward East Asia and away from the West. Negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), spearheaded by China, began with a slow start in 2012 but gained new urgency as the Trump administration pursued a protectionist trade policy. The United States is not party to the new deal.

The RCEP will reduce tariffs over a 20-year period, streamline customs procedures, and replace a number of bilateral trade agreements in the region with one set of rules. The pact establishes the Asia-Pacific as the world’s largest trading bloc, bigger than the European Union or North America, accounting for $26.2 percent of global output—some 30 percent of the global economy.

The Peterson Institute for International Economics estimates that by 2030 the deal could increase global GDP by $186 billion, although China, South Korea, and Japan are expected to benefit more than other signatories. Other parties to the deal include Australia and New Zealand, as well as the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations: Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Brunei.

India withdrew from the negotiations this year over concerns that its domestic market would be supplanted by Chinese imports, and Beijing pushed back against New Delhi’s efforts to make the deal more ambitious in scope.

Analysts note that the deal’s impact on trade is likely to be incremental, as existing regional trade deals have already driven down tariffs. But its geopolitical significance should not be underestimated as Beijing seeks to increase its influence in the Asia-Pacific. “The diplomatic messaging of RCEP may be just as important as the economics—a coup for China,” Citi Research wrote in a report on Sunday.

The Trump administration has spent the past four years backtracking on decades of U.S. trade policy, ripping up international agreements and imposing tariffs. In 2017, President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), set to become the world’s largest free trade deal and part of the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia. The remaining countries involved in the TPP forged ahead and signed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) deal, which China is not party to, in 2018.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has not indicated whether his administration would join the CPTPP. But the signing of the RCEP, which comes as a blow to Washington, is likely to refocus attention on the issue.


What We’re Following

Militant surge in Mozambique. The United Nations has called for urgent measures to protect civilians in the Cabo Delgado region of northern Mozambique, as insurgents aligned with the Islamic State have stepped up their attacks in recent weeks, killing dozens of people and forcing hundreds more to flee. Local media has reported that militants decapitated more than 50 men and boys in Muidumbe district.

While the Islamic State has been beaten back in Iraq and Syria, affiliated groups have surged in parts of Africa, from Niger to Mozambique. In Cabo Delgado, violent unrest fueled by local grievances and led by the group al-Sunna wa Jamaa has displaced over 350,000 people since 2017. The group pledged its allegiance to the Islamic State last year. In August, it seized the port of Mocímboa da Praia, signaling its growing sophistication.

Spiraling conflict in Ethiopia. An investigation by Amnesty International published last Thursday revealed that dozens, if not hundreds, of people were stabbed or “hacked to death” in the town of Mai-Kadra (May Cadera) in Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region on Nov. 9. The organization was unable to confirm who was responsible for the killings, but eyewitnesses pointed to forces loyal to the regional ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

On Nov. 4, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched military operations in Tigray after months of tensions with the leaders of the restive province, alleging that the TPLF had attacked a federal military base. The acting U.N. special advisor on the prevention of genocide issued a statement on Thursday expressing deep concern about the mounting ethnic tensions.

Abiy has repeatedly rebuffed international efforts to mediate, as Ethiopian troops close in on the regional capital, Mekelle. On Saturday, TPLF military forces fired two rockets at Asmara, the capital of neighboring Eritrea, accusing the country of sending troops to support the Ethiopian central government—allegations denied by the Eritrean government. Eritrea and Ethiopia fought a bloody border war between 1998 and 2000 that only officially ended with a peace accord signed two years ago, and the rocket attacks risk drawing Eritrea into the escalating conflict.

War in Western Sahara. The leader of the Western Sahara independence movement declared war on Morocco on Saturday, jeopardizing a 29-year-old cease-fire agreement. Brahim Ghali, the head of the Polisario Front in the disputed and sparsely populated territory, accused Morocco of breaching the agreement by launching a military operation in the U.N.-controlled buffer zone in Western Sahara.

Both sides confirmed that they had exchanged fire on Friday evening, but they did not release details of injuries or fatalities. In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, the socialist Polisario Front waged a war for independence, establishing the partially recognized Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, which controls around 20 percent of Western Sahara.

Third time’s the charm. On Nov. 9, Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra was impeached over corruption allegations. His replacement, congressional leader Manuel Merino, was appointed interim president last Tuesday but has already stepped down. The resignation comes after a week of protests that erupted following the killing of two people in a brutal police crackdown on a pro-democracy rally in the capital, Lima. Vizcarra was popular among voters, and many Peruvians regard his removal as a congressional coup.

On Monday, Peruvian lawmakers chose the respected economist Francisco Sagasti to lead the country until the next presidential election in April 2021.


Keep an Eye On 

Protesters undeterred in Belarus. Over 1,000 people were detained across Belarus on Sunday, the largest number of arrests in a single day since the protests against rigged presidential elections began in early August. Undeterred by beatings and torture at the hands of the police, protesters were further outraged last week by the killing of Roman Bondarenko, a 31-year-old art teacher who was pummeled by plainclothes officers last Wednesday and died in the hospital the next day.

German suspects charged in far-right terrorist plot. German prosecutors announced on Friday that 11 men who were first arrested in February have been charged with belonging to a far-right terrorist group and plotting deadly attacks on Muslims with a view to stoke social unrest and eventually overthrow the German government. Far-right attacks are on the rise in Germany, increasing by almost 10 percent between 2018 and 2019.


That’s it for this week.

For more from FP, visit foreignpolicy.com, subscribe here, or sign up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or corrections to newsletters@foreignpolicy.com.

Augusta Saraiva contributed to this report.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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