Following the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) on November 15, media reporting around the world has entered into a fanfare mode. In particular, media from Western countries and China are reporting such mega free trade deal as headlines within the narrow lens of US-China competition and conveniently overlooked ASEAN’s international agency (capability to act internationally) in the formation of such trade bloc. For instance, global media outlets such as the CNN and Reuters, had been highlighting the RCEP as a China-backed free trade bloc that excluded the US while further alluded to the view that Beijing is affirming itself as the pivotal economic partner for Southeast Asia, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
Likewise, another major media, New York Times, is suggesting that the regional free trade deal to which China is participating as a major actor, stands to be a counterweight to Washington’s economic influence in the East Asian region. Meanwhile, China’s official mouthpiece, Global Times, also joined in the foray. Supplanted with the views of Chinese economists emphasizing the active role Beijing played in concluding the regional free trade deal, RCEP is been branded as the success of China’s path to trade liberalization and multilateralism as opposed to the American protectionism and unilateralism. Such discourse framing, of course, is not surprising considering the economic, high-tech and even ideological competition Beijing is mired into vis-à-vis the US today.
By all means, the framing of RCEP within the context of US-China competition (as showcased by these reports)has led to the prevalence of the popular “myth” that RCEP is a China-backed free trade bloc and as such, Beijing is affirming its economic influence in the East Asian region through the trade deal. This boils down to the questions: Is this the reality on the ground? Are there differences between such “myth” and realities? In tackling these two questions, there is a need to separate such “myth” into two parts of arguments.
First and foremost, RCEP is an ASEAN-led free trade agreement (FTA) that comes with the Southeast Asian bloc’s centrality. By that, it means not only ASEAN is leading the charge by bringing both major economies such as China and Japan, into one platform for FTA, it is also harmonizing the existing bilateral FTAs it signed with each external partners into a standardized regional version known as RCEP. Whether it is equal or not less better than bilateral agreements that ASEAN signed with five external partners of China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, RCEP is basically agreed based on the pretext that such FTA starts with lower standards for trade and services’ liberalizations but progresses over time (maybe 10 years or more) into a new version of FTA with higher standards of liberalizations. It is such progressive liberalization that forms the core component in defining ASEAN’s centrality for its free trade quests around the world.
As far as the claim on RCEP being a China-backed trade deal, it should be treated as such since Beijing is indeed actively supporting ASEAN for such deal. That said, any over-emphasis of it without greater recognition to ASEAN, gives the misleading perception that the regional trade deal is Beijing-led and therefore, the remaining 14 countries are band-wagoning China as passive or subservient followers without any international agency. As Brookings Institution coined it very well, if ASEAN is not in-charge of the agreement back in 2012, the RCEP would never go beyond its starting line as both China and Japan were not politically accepted as the chief negotiators back then. Therefore, emphasizing RCEP as a “China-backed” trade deal is doing disservice to ASEAN which spent 10 years of efforts in deliberating, negotiating and concluding the trade deal as the central party for its six external partners (including India which pulled out from the trade pact last year).
The other argument pertains to the claim that China is affirming its economic influence in the region through the RCEP. While this is true to a certain extent, it is again far from the overall reality in East Asia. As alluded earlier, the RCEP is a FTA with lower standards of liberalizations and given such limitation, sensitive trade and service industries were basically protected from any free trade commitments. For instance, tariffs for trading products such as pork and tiles, remained high in both Japan and Vietnam, making it hard for other RCEP partner countries (including China) to export their goods to these countries. As for trade in services, the schedules of reservations and non-conforming measures for services and investment among the states, are even more overwhelming. Not only China excluded its automobile, rare earths, and communication equipment industries from RCEP’s liberalization commitments, other fourteen countries also furnished with their own lengthy schedules of reservations and non-conforming measures with the exception of Singapore which continued to open its economy within the regional trade pact.
Considering such reality within the RCEP, it is not hard to understand the reason both Peterson Institute of International Economics (PIIE) and University of Queensland (UQ)-Indonesian Ministry of Finance (MOF Indonesia),are projecting marginal gains for China from the mega trade deal ⸺ the former predicting an additional 0.4% to the country’s real income by 2030 while the latter’s 0.08% by the same year. As opposed to that, Japan stands to gain a lot from RCEP, especially its industrial goods that make way into the Chinese market. With 86% of the Japanese industrial goods to China eliminated within the RCEP, Japan’s auto parts suppliers are the big winners of the mega trade deal so much so that domestic Chinese players would face strong competition from its neighbour once the trade liberalization measures kick off in the coming years.
With all these realities in the offing, the claim that China is affirming its influence in East Asia through RCEP should be taken with a pinch of salt. With the conclusion of lower-standard liberalizations of RCEP, it is arguably hard to conclude that the trade deal actually affirms China’s economic influence in East Asia when it is staring at marginal gains from such a deal. Furthermore, with China being the largest trading partner for most of the RCEP countries (if not all) even before the regional trade deal is signed, any claim that Beijing will gain even more economic influence through the trade pact is harder to substantiate given that sensitive industries remained protected by other participating countries.
Given all the realities that challenge the “myths” propagated by media from the West and China, RCEP is best described as a mixed success for Beijing ⸺ as in backing the regional trade deal but not leading it, while at the same time, deriving marginal gains instead of huge gains in the next 10 years. The promise of RCEP, however, is best appreciated by focusing on ASEAN as the “new kid on the block” that has been the center of economic courtship from major powers in the West as to the East’s. Notwithstanding the limitations of RCEP in the next 10 years, the fact that ASEAN managed to assemble all major economies under its platform while simultaneously, ensuring that mega trade deal serves the economic interests of these powers, served as a boost toits capability as a middle power in the East Asian region. With this new dynamic emerging in the global trade order, it is time for the media to move on from the conventional fixation of “China, China and China” in their media reporting of RCEP and treat ASEAN as an actor with its own international agency.
Bitcoin Price Bubble: A Mirror to the Financial Crisis?
The Financial Crisis 2007-09 is without a doubt a nightmare the world once lived through and what still finds some traces in the financial systems today. The Real estate price bubble followed by a blind market crash led many of the Too-Big-To-Fail institutions to the verge of bankruptcy. In its retreat, the crisis laid the very foundation for risk management charters; like Basel Accords III stressing on the credit risk regimes and bank controls to avoid future market fiascos and averting any possibility of another financial turmoil. However, the financial crash coincided the emergence of an alternative financial system that not only bypassed the apparently faltering centralised banking systems but revolutionised the currency we knew in light of the financial crash.
The digital currency came into light in the same period when the world dealt with the smattering banking systems and volatile market conditions. Bitcoin, the first of its kind cryptocurrency, was created back in January 2009 just as the immediate effects of the financial crisis started to fade. The mysterious creator, under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, designed Bitcoin was an alternate currency to the traditional fiat money controlled by the centralised systems of federal and state banks of the countries denominating the currency of exchange. The intent behind Bitcoin laced the intension of a borderless currency to synchronise the global economy and markets into one absolute and seamless channel of trade. Bitcoin acted as a token-like element in exchange of real-life currency over a decentralised collection of systems controlled by users globally in a chain of command known as the Blockchain.
Although the ascent of Bitcoin was stagnant at first, it soon surged in popularity and subsequently in value over the course of years. Bitcoin bloomed up and beyond expectations, taking valuation of thousands of US dollars while its variants traded on a much lower price tag. The proponents of the cryptocurrency, also the main critics of the institutionalised nature of the global financial system, failed to realise, however, the dangers and pitfalls of a decentralised system of currency exchange and the total shit to digitalised units of trade. The latest Basel accords and their rendition of the laid principles and measures in the financial algorithms devalued over the years following the financial crisis are ultimately rendered futile in the world of unregulated cryptocurrency markets denominated in kinds of Bitcoin. Thus, although the probability of fraudulent activities is shunned to zilch courtesy of the complex disintegrated protocols associated to blockchain mechanisms incorporated in Bitcoin, the price controls are virtually impossible to place. This is due to the fact that digital currencies are already rendered extremely difficult to value accurately given the sheer volatility of the prices, making Bitcoin and similar cryptocurrencies almost impossible to distinguish artificial price bubbles from the actual gain of value.
This was proven within a decade of Bitcoin’s invention, back in 2017, when Bitcoin’s surged in value from trading below $3,000 to a whopping $2,0000. The price bubble was attributed to the gain of trust in the champions of Bitcoin, known as miners, gaining popularity in the digital fanatics while simultaneously driving heavy criticism from the financial industry gurus. The bubble, however, brutally popped on 22nd December 2017; crashing from a record peak of the time of $19,783.06 to below $11,000 in mere 5 days. While many of the venerated financial institutions, like JP Morgan, mocked the craze of Bitcoin, they also warned of the worst market crash the world has ever seen over the obsession and the relentless rise in value of Bitcoin despite of the steep risks involved.
With the onset of 2021, however, the financial institutions who once steered clear of the digital phenomenon, now have taken a polar position of yet another price surge rippling Bitcoin. This time around, the high volatility in Bitcoin is associated to Institutional investors as opposed to the speculators deemed culprit of the bubble back in 2017. However, the waves are more raucous than ever. Trading at $40,797.61, Bitcoin slumped down to $34,039 on closing of 12th January 2021, just in a span of 4 days. Bitcoin has posted an astounding 300% growth in returns; bouncing from $5,000, just before the hit of the Covid pandemic, to the record highs above $40,000 looming the Bitcoin trends. Though many sage minds associate the inflation-resistant characteristics and fixed supply features of Bitcoin to its surge of value and touching the shock resistant nature of Gold, many believe that the value is found to cascade since it’s not real investment in their definition. Now as the growing economies like UAE and China are spreading wings towards blockchain variants, stability in Bitcoin is a possibility overtime. Yet, is the worst of the rough price bubbles behind us or is a crash still imminent?
Flourishing Forex Market amidst Covid pandemic
The Covid-19 outbreak has halted the normal channel of life, people losing their livelihood and income has dwindled over the past eight months all over the world. However, in the tailspin the world has faced, the Forex accounts have witnessed a phenomenal growth over the pandemic-ridden months. Month-on-month growth has been recorded as close as 25-50% while the total volume has expedited at an all-time high of 300% growth. Over the past decade such a phenomenal growth was hardly ever seen since the last record high was a close to 40% which is mere compared to the colossal figure posted on the stage in June 2020.
The developing markets, however, post a lucrative section to invest in since the region has been the biggest contributor to the FX rise: close to 60% being the beneficiary of Europe, Africa and South Asian countries. Safe to say that this trend has been so steep largely due to the investors being ridden with optimism over the volatile prices of many of the commodities that were rendered stagnant over the previous decades. This includes the oil prices, gold valuation and even the real estate market that despite being involved in a price bubble leading to the worst financial crisis of the millennial, still stood relatively steady over the past 11 years.
The FX market is oozing optimism to say anything about the trend which could be directly associated to the unprecedented financial climate and the looming atmosphere of recession and financial crisis pushing people towards adopting a new income stream. As conventional income channels come to a dead stall and people having time and focus to spare towards trading, the large volume of cumulative accounts could be further expected to extrapolate since price volatility and unexpected events both in the trade and world affairs have had a conducive effect on even the layman to dip into the trading cycle: FX market being the coherent choice due to safe commodity and currency investments and quick gains.
Exacting one’s mind towards the milestones achieved this year, be it the plunge of global oil prices to the negative scale of the exchange or the sharp fall and sudden rise of DJI or even the injection of one of the largest stimulus packages in the United States since the infamous financial crisis, this year marks the focal point of risks and opportunities. The prospects of a new vaccine are still trailing to the second quarter of 2021 despite some countries picking up the pace to vaccinate early means the trend in the market is not short term unless a breakthrough is imminent. On the market front, the interest rate crunch with UK expected to nudge the rates in the negative along with global relief to debt financing, traders have a global ticket on both the borrowing and the lending front to turn up abnormal gains. However, reliable brokers are a tough nook to find since the uncertainty also grips the traders regarding investments in the skewed conditions as such. Moreover, with naïve traders entering the market, small scale brokers clustering the exchanges and limited physical interactions due to social distancing protocols are all but exhaustive factors that could easily deteriorate the growing trend and bring about a financial crisis much sooner than expected if not regulated efficiently.
Public Council Sets New Tasks to Support Russia-Africa Relations
In this interview with Armen Khachatryan, Deputy Chief Executive Officer and Programme Director at the Roscongress Foundation, and now a member of the newly created Public Council under the Secretariat of the Russia–Africa Partnership Forum, argues that the first Summit held in October 2019 ultimately seeks to inject a new dynamism in the existing Russia-Africa relations.
According to him, as the African continent undergoes positive transformation, platforms for dialogue between Russia and Africa are profoundly changing too. The Russia–Africa Summit demonstrated the sheer enormity of potential that exists for collaboration across various areas, and one of the outcomes of that historic event was the establishment of the Secretariat of the Russia–Africa Partnership Forum. The Secretariat further created a Public Council, the body also incorporates a Coordinating Council, Research Council and Media Council.
Speaking with Kester Kenn Klomegah early January 2021, Armen Khachatryan unreservedly stressed that building on the existing relations and all that have been achieved over the past few years, needs new platforms such as the Public Council. This Public Council aims primarily to uplift and solidly support the relations into a new stage, change perception among the public and give it an entirely new outlook into the future. Here are the interview excerpts:
A meeting of the Public Council of the Russia–Africa Partnership Forum Secretariat took place early November 2020. What were the main outcomes of the event?
It was the first kick-off meeting held last year. We determined the objectives facing the Public Council of the Russia–Africa Partnership Forum Secretariat. Specifically, these were to do with implementing the decisions of the inaugural Russia–Africa Summit and organizing the second summit, which is planned to take place in 2022. We discussed the current state of Russian-African relations in the humanitarian sphere, as well as the potential to develop them further. We also set out the council’s plan of action.
In your opinion, what social initiatives were prioritized – particularly at this time when Russia is seriously looking to focus on Africa?
Humanitarian cooperation has recently played an increasingly significant role in the development of Russian-African relations. The lively discussions at the Russia–Africa Economic Forum in October, 2019, in Sochi are testament to the importance of joint social initiatives, and to the shared desire to implement them. I believe this is with good reason, as collaboration in this area can help build an atmosphere of mutual trust. It isabsolutely essential to forge sustainable partnerships in different spheres with Africa.
In terms of priorities, areas in which we have traditionally collaborated include education, healthcare, culture, the environment, safety and security and so forth. All of these fields possess enormous potential for Russia and Africa to work together, and our country is ready to share its experience and expertise on mutually beneficial terms. Unlike some other countries, Russia wants a strong Africa with genuine sovereignty and a competitive economy. With this in mind, I would place particular emphasis on education. From my point of view, Africa’s most valuable asset is not its natural resources, but its people.
Young people currently make up a significant percentage of the population across the African continent. And that figure is going to increase further still. The population of the continent has already passed the 1.3 billion mark, with a median age of about 20. Around 60% of the population are young people under the age of 25. And according to forecasts, by 2050 the elderly will account for just 9% of the population. Given these numbers, we not only need to increase quotas for African students looking to study in Russia, but also open branches of our universities in African countries. That would allow us to offer a Russian education to many more African students as well as establish student exchange programmes.
By all appearances, aspects to do with education and professional training – and issues of humanitarian nature – are currently being examined in keeping with the course that has been delineated. Do you think that civil society should be involved in extending the reach of public diplomacy between Russia and Africa?
There is no doubt that collaboration between Russia and Africa should extend across the board, and take place at various levels. It should not be limited to ties between government officials and members of the business community. In any country, ordinary citizens make up the majority of the population, and for countries to collaborate effectively with one another, there needs to be an understanding of their perspectives and wishes. Therefore, as we look to establish direct ties and foster an environment conducive to regular dialogue with the people of various African nations, it is vital to involve civil society more closely.
It would appear sensible to provide more opportunities to people in Africa in terms of volunteering and doing internships at large Russian companies that are looking to build their presence on the African continent. The aim would be for these people to potentially be offered jobs at the companies’ African branches. Human resources need to be at the heart of our efforts, given their potential role in strengthening ties in both industry and science.
For our part, the Roscongress Foundation, as a socially oriented non-financial development institution, is open to proposals and is ready to provide assistance in promoting Russia’s image in African countries. This includes through organizing business, cultural and sporting events. As far as this is concerned, I imagine that the Foundation will receive support from Russian embassies and Rossotrudnichestvo’s offices in African countries.
Do you envisage any problems during attempts to better leverage Russia‘s soft power and to strengthen public diplomacy in Africa? Do you view competition from other foreign players as a challenge?
I don’t think it’s entirely appropriate to use the term “soft power” in this instance. In this regard, I am of the same opinion as Yevgeny Primakov, Head of Rossotrudnichestvo. The term I take issue with is “power”, which implies pressure of some kind. We have no intention of pressurizing anyone. We are in favour of equal relations with all of our partners, and this includes African nations. In particular, we are guided by the principle of “African solutions to African problems.”
Obviously, there is competition, but I would not call that a challenge as such. Our main objective is not to compete with someone, but to offer our own perspectives on certain issues, communicate our values, and build a positive image of Russia in the eyes of people in Africa. Let me explicitly reiterate here, we are not exerting power in any way. People in Africa will have the benefit of several alternative perspectives, and will be able to choose the approach they feel is closest to them. This, in my opinion, is the principle of equality and mutual respect.
Of course, there are things that are hampering efforts to implement a systemic Russian humanitarian policy in Africa. For example, Rossotrudnichestvo has only eight offices across Africa’s 54 nations. It would appear that Russian-African ties would benefit from Russia opening new diplomatic missions in the region. If we want Russia’s voice to be heard on the African continent, special attention needs to be given to this issue.
In terms of the media landscape, what steps need to be taken to improve the work done by various outlets? How can we better inform society about events in both parts of the world? Why, for example, news in Africa rarely reported on in Russia?
In terms of working with the African continent, I believe that raising awareness on both sides is one of the most important issues we face. It is difficult to talk about joint ventures, for example, to develop the SME sector, when the African continent remains so little known in Russia, and in Africa, there is only a vague notion of what Russia is. The Russia–Africa Summit and Economic Forum played a crucial role in addressing this, as did the 2018 FIFA World Cup. That event saw many people from Africa visit Russia for the first time. They were able to see with their own eyes what our country is like, instead of being presented an image by the Western media. People were following events using various information resources.
These events played a huge role in helping to shape the media landscape. However, this exchange of information needs to be done on a more permanent basis. It’s worth pointing out that in today’s world, awareness can be raised in more ways than just via the media. Given the spread of social media, the student exchanges I mentioned earlier could, over time, play a much more important role in cultivating Russia’s image than conventional media channels. However, in order to achieve this, it is vital to work with young people in both Russia and Africa.
Going back to conventional media, I believe that first of all, Russian news agencies need to expand their network of correspondents in Africa. That would allow our journalists to work with primary sources, rather than rely on material put together by foreign news agencies. It will also be important to get Russian and African journalists working together, for example, through placement programmes, master classes, roundtables and so forth.
To answer the question on news in Africa being reported on in Russia, things are developing. Telegram channels dedicated to the African continent are appearing, for example, so it is possible to stay up-to-date with key events. One organization which is doing much to leverage Telegram channels is the Association of Economic Cooperation with African States (AECAS). Its members include the Roscongress Foundation, which has considerable experience in developing and implementing humanitarian initiatives. AECAS is also currently working to build an integrated space for people in Russia and Africa to obtain information. This appears to me to be a very promising area. Admittedly, when it comes to large news agencies, the problem is that there are not enough events to report on which would garner widespread interest. However, I am in no doubt that as Russian‑African relations develop further, things will improve in this area.
The second Russian-African Public Forum took place in November 2020. In his welcome address, Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov said that amendments needed to be made topolicy initiatives in order to respond to changing realities in Africa. What was he referring to, and what is your take on “changing realities” in Africa?
First of all, I would say that the African continent has undergone an enormous transformation over the last few years. Across all areas, Africa has become much more profoundly involved in the economic processes driving globalization. Partners in Africa are implementing a programme to ease the movement of goods, capital and people, and to employ new technology in business and marketing. This has made the African economy more open and attractive to foreign investors.
The first Russia–Africa Economic Forum in Sochi served as yet another clear demonstration to the Russian and global community that the African economy is becoming more organic. It served as proof of Africa’s increasingly significant role in the global economy. Indeed, the continent has a direct bearing on global growth, and on progress in science and technology. Africa’s economic ties with the rest of the world are certainly no longer solely about supplying raw materials and being a market for finished products.
The socioeconomic growth we are witnessing, together with the global economy’s accelerated transition to a new wave of tech innovation, has meant that Africa’s role and position in the global economy has shifted significantly. The continent is also becoming an important growth pole in terms of global demand. Consumer spending on the continent has already reached US$ 680 billion. According the World Bank, this figure is set to grow to US$ 2.2 trillion by 2030.
As the continent undergoes this transformation, platforms for dialogue between Russia and Africa are profoundly changing too. The Russia–Africa Summit demonstrated the sheer enormity of potential that exists for collaboration across various areas. It was a historic milestone for Russian-African cooperation. One of the outcomes of the event was the establishment of the Secretariat of the Russia–Africa Partnership Forum. In addition to a public council, the body also incorporates a coordinating council, research council, and media council. Never before in Russia’s modern history has there been such a serious mechanism for bringing together expertise and best practices from all sides and across all areas. It is set to act as a foundation to develop all aspects of Russian-African partnership, and to effectively position Africa’s transformation, which we briefly discussed earlier.
The high-level summit also led to the establishment of the Association of Economic Cooperation with African States, which will serve as a platform to strengthen business ties between Russia and Africa.
The situation is so diverse – politics, economy and culture – in Africa. In your opinion, what are the best pathways for promoting policy initiatives, as well as the social aspects of diplomacy with Africa?
That is quite important, but I don’t think we should try to identify a single “best” or “universal” pathway. It’s important to understand that Africa is a diverse continent – every country is unique, and requires an individual approach. And that’s before we consider that methods and initiatives that are employed in one region of the world – for example, Europe – are not at all necessarily appropriate for countries in Africa. We need to meticulously analyse each initiative, and be sure to draw the greatest possible benefit from them.
Generally speaking, there needs to be a focus on working with people, and in particular, with young people in Africa. These efforts should be based upon the needs of the population. And as I mentioned earlier, the pathways to achieving our aims could look very different from one another. Africa, just like Russia, is blessed with a wealth of extremely young talented people: some make films, others dance, others draw. But that’s not the important thing. What’s important here is to do everything we can to connect the lives of people in Africa with our country –we show that Russia is ready to help develop their talents. After all, these people could well become the thought leaders of the future, as well as ambassadors for Russian-African relations. These people could help foster a positive image of Russia in their respective countries. We are ready to engage and cooperate with intergovernmental organizations, civil society and African partners, work constructively to consolidate the results from the first summit and what both Russia and Africa further set inthe joint declaration in Sochi, in October 2019.
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