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Open Access Publications from the University of California

A New Leader in Asian Free Trade Agreements? Chinese Style Global Trade: New Rules, No Labor Protections

  • Author(s): Brown, Ronald C.
  • et al.

In 2017, after the election of Donald Trump and his subsequent language and actions surrounding global trade, Chinese President Xi Jinping took the world stage at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in a moment that led many to say he assumed the mantle of world leader on globalism and global trade, particularly in Asia. Previously, President Obama noted that the TPP presented an opportunity for the U.S., along with its partners, to write the rules of international trade with Asia-Pacific countries. At the same time, China has been working to negotiate another trade agreement in the Asia-Pacific Region, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The RCEP aims to be the largest free-trade bloc in the world, comprising all ten ASEAN nations (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam) and the six other countries with which ASEAN already has free-trade agreements (FTAs)—China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand.

With China ascending in global leadership on Asian trade at the same time the U.S. descends, a looming question arises—what is to be expected in terms of trade rules and labor protections? There is a history on both issues that is explored in this paper and which reveals there may be difficulties ahead for those looking for an even playing field in trade and attention to labor protections. To many, it will seem like RCEP is a green light for MNCs to further invest in their labor supply chains in the developing countries in Asia, much to the consternation of labor unions in the U.S. and the detriment to American and Asian workers. Further, there are outstanding questions as to the efficacy of any labor protections that arise in future agreements. The Asia-Pacific Region is one of the largest markets in the world, so answering these questions is critical. To arrive at a fair estimate of what to expect in terms of real labor law protections and their enforcement in Asian countries under the Chinese-influenced FTAs, this paper examines the social dimension provisions of the Chinese free trade agreements (FTAs) in Asia relating to labor.

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