Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Paradox of the ASEAN, China, Japan and the US Free Trade Agreement Talks

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations and its six regional partners, including Japan, China and India, declared Tuesday the start of negotiations for a free-trade agreement that could create a huge integrated market compromising more than 3 billion people.

The move toward creating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership comes as the United States is seeking to create another vast free-trade bloc through the Trans-Pacific Partnership initiative.

If the RCEP and TPP, which is currently being negotiated by 11 countries, are created, each could be similar in economic size to the European Union. The 16 countries involved in the RCEP negotiations have a combined nominal gross domestic product of about $19 trillion, or about 30 percent of the world's GDP.

The RCEP negotiations are expected to begin early next year and to be completed by the end of 2015. But it will be a challenge for the 16 countries with their diverse backgrounds to realize a high-quality agreement to liberalize trade in goods, services and investment.

The countries involved are the 10 ASEAN members — Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — plus China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.
Two things here

Any thrust towards the expansion of voluntary trade is always welcome.

Although free trade doesn’t really require FTAs as nations can just unilaterally engage in reducing all forms of trade restrictions (tariffs or non tariff based).

This means that FTAs are not necessarily "free" as they conditional to certain terms and or to specific industries or to particular areas of the economy.

As the great dean of Austrian Economics Murray Rothbard wrote,
If the establishment truly wants free trade, all it has to do is to repeal our numerous tariffs, import quotas, anti-"dumping" laws, and other American-imposed restrictions on trade. No foreign policy or foreign maneuvering is needed.

If authentic free trade evers looms on the policy horizon, there'll be one sure way to tell. The government/media/big-business complex will oppose it tooth and nail. We'll see a string of op-eds "warning" about the imminent return of the 19th century. Media pundits and academics will raise all the old canards against the free market, that it's exploitative and anarchic without government "coordination." The establishment would react to instituting true free trade about as enthusiastically as it would to repealing the income tax.
Yet inflationist policies undertaken by all these nations, especially by the US, Japan and China, which signifies a form of protectionism, essentially offsets any free trade agreement that would be forged.

Nonetheless this leads us to the second point. We have repeatedly been told that frictions over territorial claims have led to political brinkmanship in the region


And indeed the open display of mutual animosity has even adversely affected trading output between two major participants, China and Japan, in the FTA.

Tourism between both countries, aside from car sales of Japanese brands have reportedly slumped in September, even after the end of anti-Tokyo protest. 

It has been alleged that China's anti-Tokyo street protests has been orchestrated by the Chinese government that even led to a water cannon shootout between the coast guard patrol boats of Japan and Taiwan, another claimant on the disputed island.

So we are once again seeing the strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in terms of regional political and economic relationships between China and Japan (over Senkaku) and China and ASEAN (Scarborough and Spratlys). 

Certainly the conflicting status in trade relations and regional politics means one is a signal and the other is a noise. That’s unless there has been little coordination within their respective governments or that one of the two represents a smokescreen for other veiled agenda.

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