The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is a so-called mega-regional economic agreement being negotiated since 2012 between the 10 ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) governments and their six FTA partners: Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.
RCEP is largely driven by ASEAN. Indeed, the project originated in, and expands upon, the stitching together of five existing ASEAN+1 trade agreements, that ASEAN signed with Japan, South Korea, China, India, Australia and New Zealand. The stated goal of the negotiations is to “boost economic growth and equitable economic development, advance economic cooperation and broaden and deepen integration in the region through the RCEP,” according to the ASEAN website. From what is known of the agreement’s contents, the proposed RCEP would cover almost every aspect of economy such as goods, services, investment, economic and technical cooperation, intellectual property rights (IPR), rules of origin, competition and dispute settlement.
The negotiations have missed several deadlines repeatedly, even though they have gained momentum since 2016.
Concerns about the RCEP have been voiced in a number of contexts and cover a range of issues. A 2015 leaked text on intellectual property rights proposed by Japan’s negotiators confirmed concerns that the deal could go beyond the rules agreed to at the World Trade Organisation, known as the Trade Related Aspects of IPRs (TRIPS) agreement.
Various movements, including environmental groups, trade unions, domestic workers, farmers, hawkers, and people living with HIV have been raising their concerns over the trade deal since the text got leaked. Thousands of them marched against the harmful provisions in the trade deal, demanding transparency from governments, in Hyderabad, India, in July 2017 and organised a People’s Convention on RCEP.
The 2015 leaks also show that Japan and South Korea want to get all Asian countries into UPOV, the Union for the Protection of New Plant Varieties, under the terms of its 1991 convention. UPOV is a specialised system of seed patenting, which makes it illegal – indeed, a criminal offense — for farmers to save and reuse patented seeds. This has huge implications for food security and farmers’ rights in the region.
The implications for access to medicines are even more alarming. Japan and South Korea are channeling demands by big pharma for longer patent terms and for monopoly rights over clinical trial data. These provisions could undermine access to price-lowering generic medicines, and thus, life-saving treatment for millions of people in the developing world.
On copyright and digital rights, groups say the deal could be “even worse than TPP or ACTA”, referring to the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement that was stopped due to public pressure. On services and other chapters as well, the RCEP appears to overlap and compete with the higher-profile TPP agreement which has been signed by 11 Pacific Rim countries. (Seven of the states negotiating RCEP are TPP members.)
To date, no official text has been made public, even though the agreement would affect several billion people. This continues to fuel concerns. In fact, civil society groups were completely shut out of the 22nd negotiation round in Singapore in March 2018 while transnational corporations were invited for a business dialogue.
Last update: June 2018 / Photo: Siddharth Singh