Japanese Minister of Economy and Industry Hiroshi Kajiyama (right) and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in Hanoi on November 15 during the signing of the Comprehensive Regional Economic Partnership.

Presented as a victory for China, the conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) also sounds like a success for Japan. The free trade agreement, signed on November 15 by the ten countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), China, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Archipelago, represents an important stage in Tokyo’s trade policy.

Seen from Japan, the RCEP, whose members capture 46% of its exports, establishes a first structure of liberalized trade with China and South Korea, its first and third trading partners. It is in addition to the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), another free trade area established in 2018 with ten countries bordering the Pacific, but without the United States, President Trump having decided not to participate.

The RCEP remains of limited ambition, since it plans, in the long term, to eliminate a maximum of 91.5% of customs duties on Japanese industrial exports – against 100% in the CPTPP – but it establishes rules on electronic commerce, intellectual property or geographical origin.

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“The signature is extremely important for the achievement of a free and open international economic order”, reacted Hiroaki Nakanishi, president of the main Japanese employers’ confederation, the Keidanren.

“Triumph of Middle Power Diplomacy”

Another advantage for Tokyo is that the RCEP is not a framework subservient to Beijing. As Peter A. Petri of the John L. Thornton China Center and Michael Plummer of Johns Hopkins University recall, “RCEP, often mistakenly referred to as ‘led by China’, is a triumph of ASEAN middle power diplomacy. Neither China nor Japan, the first economies in the region, were politically acceptable as architects of the project ”.

Tokyo, like Beijing, has nevertheless always supported the process. Japan has been involved economically in South-East Asia since the 1960s. In 1977, with the “Fukuda doctrine”, the Archipelago left the simple economic framework to improve an image tarnished by the memory of the occupation by its forces during World War II.

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The 2000s were marked by growing rivalry with China. In November 2001, China offered ASEAN to conclude a free trade agreement within ten years.

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