Qinzhou Port in China’s Guangxi province.

Qinzhou Port in China’s Guangxi province. In the first four months of 2022, China’s trade with its top three trading partners – ASEAN, the EU and the US – jumped 7.9 per cent. (Photo: Facebook/China-ASEAN Expo)

‘Tell the RCEP Story Well’: The Salience of RCEP in China’s Global Discourse


China has gone to extensive lengths to underscore the tangible benefits arising from its participation in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. But Beijing’s criticism of the United States as being anti-globalist is overdone.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP), which entered into force on 1 January this year, provides new opportunities for Chinese businesses to thrive. From Beijing’s perspective, the RCEP also gives a fillip to Chinese information campaigns to shape global narratives about the country. Touted as the world’s largest trade deal among ten ASEAN member countries and five ASEAN’s free trade agreement (FTA) partners, RCEP not only consolidates China’s economic influence and integration with Asian countries. It has become the “poster child” of the Chinese brand of “multilateralism” and “free trade”. For reasons that are as much economic as geopolitical, Beijing has actively promoted and leveraged the trade pact in its ‘discursive struggle’ with Washington.

RCEP is a regular topic in China’s English-language media with nothing but positive coverage. This is replicated across the country, with different outlets reporting national- and provincial-level trade growth with RCEP members and the number of RCEP certificates of origin issued by local customs authorities (harmonised rules of origin are RCEP’s hallmark achievement). An RCEP-dedicated website has been established under the commerce ministry’s China Council for the Promotion of International Trade. The Twitter account of China’s ambassador to ASEAN is also full of RCEP-related updates and positive content. If the 2000s heralded the “WTO moment” for China, the 2020s is the country’s “RCEP moment” as the trade pact takes pride of place in the Chinese media and discourse. There is a whole-of-system undertaking to “tell the RCEP story well” with highly-orchestrated choreography between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), central government agencies, local authorities, research institutes, industry players, the business sector and China’s propaganda machinery.

At the China-hosted RCEP Media & Think-tank Roundtable Forum in May 2022, a representative from the CCP-run Guangming Daily said in his keynote address: “The world’s current public opinion landscape is in the midst of profound changes. We should let the voices of RCEP countries be heard loud and clear, create our own RCEP narratives, and establish our own discourse.” He further advised that to tell RCEP stories well, media and think-tanks “should not only target macro-level policies, outcomes, data, projects … but also focus on real people and a wide range of people who benefit from the agreement”.

By leveraging RCEP both in terms of consolidating China’s economic linkages with Asian countries and in shaping a positive discourse about China’s support for free trade and multilateralism, Beijing is taking a swipe at the US Indo-Pacific strategy’s Achilles heel — the lack of America’s robust economic statecraft and trade strategy in the region.

True to form, the Chinese media is replete with anecdotes about how RCEP since its entry into force has brought tangible benefits to Chinese and regional businesses in various sectors. Chinese companies, for example, are particularly excited about the opportunities for increased exports to and reduced import tariffs from Japan which did not have an FTA with China pre-RCEP. Interviews with multiple Southeast Asian stakeholders, including small business-owners, think-tanks, bankers, business federations and high-level trade officials, are widely reported to make a convincing case about RCEP as “win-win cooperation”.

Beijing’s efforts to “tell the RCEP story well” have a strong geopolitical motivation: To bolster positive narratives about China as a champion of multilateralism, free trade and globalisation. China is, according to Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin, a promoter of RCEP’s signing and a practitioner of RCEP’s high-quality and effective implementation. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s praise of RCEP as “a victory of multilateralism and free trade” is widely echoed in Chinese media and by Chinese diplomats.

By leveraging RCEP both in terms of consolidating China’s economic linkages with Asian countries and in shaping a positive discourse about China’s support for free trade and multilateralism, Beijing is taking a swipe at the US Indo-Pacific strategy’s Achilles heel — the lack of America’s robust economic statecraft and trade strategy in the region.

Inherently embedded in these narratives is the framing of the US as anti-globalisation, protectionist and exclusivist. In the words of Chinese ambassador to ASEAN Deng Xijun, “true multilateralism means inclusiveness rather than exclusion, integration rather than decoupling”. RCEP has become a “discursive weapon” for Beijing to criticise Washington’s economic policies. These include America’s absence from Asian multilateral free trade agreements, Washington’s pursuit of supply chain resilience and diversification away from China in critical industries and technologies, and the recently launched Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF). From the Chinese perspective, RCEP stands for “openness”, “inclusiveness”, “partnership, not alliance” and “support for ASEAN centrality”. Meanwhile, the IPEF is framed as an economic “small circle” that disrupts global industrial chains, smacks of a “Cold War mentality” and does not serve Southeast Asian countries’ interests.

China’s binary framing, however, simplifies complex economic realities and glosses over some uncomfortable facts for Beijing. The US remains one of the world’s most open economies, ranking 9th in the Legatum Institute’s 2019 Global Index of Economic Openness in four criteria: access and infrastructure, investment environment, enterprise conditions and governance. China is way behind at 54th. According to the 2022 State of Southeast Asia Survey, more Southeast Asian respondents put their trust in the US (30.4 per cent) than in China (24.6 per cent) in terms of leadership in championing global free trade.

The fact that seven Southeast Asian countries are participating in IPEF suggests that they are all-inclusive in their economic relations, not least with the US which remains the region’s top investor, 2nd largest trading partner and 2nd largest export market, according to the ASEAN Statistical Yearbook 2021. Notably, all Southeast Asian states have trade surplus with the US (except Singapore and Brunei), and all run trade deficit with China (except Brunei). As the world economy is undergoing all sorts of disruptions and uncertainties — ranging from the Covid-19 pandemic to the economic fallouts from the war in Ukraine — diversification is key to ensuring resilience. It is also worth noting that the supply chain disruptions and agricultural produce logjams at China’s border in recent months are due to Beijing’s zero-Covid policy. In short, there are chinks in the armour when Beijing proffers a utopian narrative about its championing of multilateralism and free trade. This is a pertinent reminder that the region’s economic future should not be left at the mercy of any single juggernaut.


Hoang Thi Ha is Senior Fellow and Co-coordinator of the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.