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China

Chinese dragon will use trade deal to tighten grip on Southeast Asia

With most ASEAN nations already under authoritarian rule, RCEP deal will be bad news for religion and democracy

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Chinese dragon will use trade deal to tighten grip on Southeast Asia

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha attends the ASEAN Summit on Nov. 13 on a live video conference held online from Hanoi due to the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo: AFP/Royal Thai Government)

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Communist China is expected to consolidate its position among ASEAN states with a massive Beijing-backed trade deal that will cut tariffs and establish common rules for trade, e-commerce and intellectual property rights.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) deal was inked on Nov. 15 on the last day of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit that Vietnam hosted virtually.

The economic clout of Beijing among the 10 ASEAN members — Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — has seen an astronomical rise in recent years.

Most ASEAN nations are already under authoritarian rule where freedom of religion often takes a back seat, as happens in China. 

The participating RCEP countries account for 30 percent of the world’s population and gross domestic product, according to a July report by Brookings Institution, a Washington-based research group.

The spadework on the RCEP pact started in 2012 and it will become the largest free trade agreement ever despite the notable absence of India and the US.

Washington’s exclusion will give China, the world’s second-largest economy, a chance to establish new trading partners within the region, thereby exporting its cultural imperialism and communist ideology alongside commodities and services.

Experts say that China will use this pact to advance its political interests — a kind of “China first” strategy. Communist ideology and its related opposition to religion and democracy are integral parts of Chinese political interests.

China, which has posted robust economic growth even during the Covid-19 meltdown, is expected to leverage its relations with Southeast Asian countries that have contained the coronavirus pandemic to some extent.

Once a free trade zone is established under the RCEP, it will encompass a third of the global economy and China is expected to act as its big brother who calls the shots.

This will give a free hand to China to increase its cultural influence in Southeast Asian nations such as Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia where democracy is struggling to flourish.

Though the trade deal is the culmination of China’s decade-long quest for greater economic integration of the region, its long-term impact will stretch beyond trade and may encompass culture and religion as the RCEP is seen as more China-centric.

Due to its absence from the major Asian trade agreement, the US will have to strive hard to counter and neutralize China’s ambitions in Asia.

The onus now rests on US allies such as Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand to act in the interests of Washington under the “pivot to Asia” policy, started by the Obama administration.

Although the US enjoys a significant edge in military might and remains a vital economic partner to many Asian nations, Washington is nowhere in the picture in terms of curbing the Chinese influence in these Asian nations.

With the signing of the RCEP, China will get access to a partnership that covers 2.2 billion people with a combined GDP of more than US$26 trillion.

Going by its past track record, China will export its atheist communist ideology to ASEAN states that have already shown an affinity to Chinese communism through their authoritarian regimes.

China has already exerted its influence on these countries with its multibillion-dollar Belt and Road initiative that covers 138 countries and 30 international organizations.

For the poor nations in Southeast Asia, China is a role model that has brought more people out of extreme poverty than any other country in history.

As the world’s largest exporter and second-largest importer of goods, China accounts for 17.7 percent of the world’s total wealth, only behind the US at 30 percent.

In 2019, China surpassed the US as home to the highest number of rich people in the world, according to a Credit Suisse global wealth report.

With its large population of 1.5 billion, China is wooing neighboring nations with its robust domestic economic reforms and collaborative diplomatic strategy. It has already established its superpower status over the United States in the region.

With US influence rapidly fading away, it has become easy for China to become Asia’s powerhouse.

With the establishment of the largest free trade zone under its initiative, the Chinese dragon is expected to make big noises not only in trade but in the cultural sphere of neighboring Asian countries.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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