The Nation | 24 June 2016
Asean told to refocus on RCEP
by Achara Deboonme
Thailand and other Asean nations should review their stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and rather refocus on materialising the Regional Cooperation on Economic Partnership (RCEP) if they want to ensure an equal-growth path for the region, said former World Trade Organisation (WTO) chief Supachai Panitchpakdi.
In a special address to the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce’s executive programme yesterday, Supachai likened the TPP to a political tool of the United States to maintain its power in Asia in light of the increasing influence of China. Meanwhile RCEP, which has Asean as the centre in collaboration with six other nations, is a positive mechanism in dealing with geographic issues involving Asian countries.
"With RCEP, there is no need for these countries to go to war. Don’t forget that Asia is a big spender on defence. However, RCEP will not go anywhere if some of our friends take the second row at the negotiation table," he said, referring to Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam - the four Asean members that have agreed to join the TPP.
He acknowledged that if all Asean nations joined the TPP, it would be a boon for the region. However, from his estimate, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar will never be qualified to join the pact, which demands, among other things, liberalisation in the service industries.
He also attacked the US for upgrading Malaysia’s ranking in the "Trafficking in Persons" report to Tier 2 and leaving Thailand at Tier 3 even though in the past year Thailand has made immense progress in tackling human trafficking. He claimed the US did so to make Malaysia qualified for TPP negotiation, which bars countries in Tier 3 from the table.
He expressed surprise that the four countries had agreed to join TPP even though the requirements were sky-high, a lot more demanding than RCEP, which is in turn slightly more stringent than Asean agreements.
By initiating the TPP, the US wanted to prevent the transition of power from the Western to the Eastern Hemisphere, which will be led by China, Supachai said. Washington also went further by initiating another pact with Europe, called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
"Members of the two pacts will control about 60-70 per cent of global trade. If these two pacts are enforced, there will be no need for the WTO. That will pose risks to global trade, as giant and small countries are put in the same group," he said, adding that in the end small countries would be left out.
He said Asean as a whole had immense potential to be part of the global value chain. Deeper integration means these nations could benefit from others’ human and non-human resources. However, at this stage, only Singapore is ready to exploit fully the possible benefits of the integration.
On the issue of firming relations with Beijing, he acknowledged that China has had thorny relationships with its Asian counterparts, chiefly the disputes over the South China Sea.
China’s "One Belt, One Road" initiative and its projects along the Mekong River are all for their own interests, he said. However, Beijing provides room for negotiation, as seen through what Thailand and China are doing regarding the Sino-Thai high-speed-rail project.
Supachai said Thailand should ensure that it thoroughly considers the pros and cons before making the next move. He acknowledged the overwhelming pressure from the private sector for the accession to the TPP, but urged the government to negotiate for the highest benefits if Thailand is really to join pact.
"If we’re desperate to join, we will end up getting nothing," he said.