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The world is turning its back on globalization, free trade and multilateral institutions — or at least that’s the conventional wisdom. Inspired by the nationalism and protectionism of President Trump and spurred on by the covid-19 pandemic, politicians and commentators’ talk of bringing home supply chains and bolstering domestic production. Even without Trump, the thinking goes, this shift is likely to endure.
But how, then, should we make sense of a seismic event that took place a few weeks ago — with almost no discussion in the United States? On Nov. 15, in a virtual ceremony, 15 Asia-Pacific countries signed the world’s largest free-trade pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The signatory states account for 30 percent of global GDP — larger than NAFTA or the European Union. Many of the same nations had also signed, two years earlier, another big free-trade pact called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which also included Canada, Mexico, Chile and Peru. And negotiations are underway to conclude a China-Japan-South Korea trade agreement as well as a China-E.U. investment treaty. And in 2018, African nations formed a continent-wide free-trade area.