The 15-nation RCEP – if that’s a secret agreement, someone should tell MFAT and the PM

The secret – or so-called secret – is out.  New Zealand has signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, then proclaimed the fact very publicly on the Beehive’s web-wide bulletin board.

The partnership encompasses Japan, China, South Korea, the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Australia and New Zealand and creates “a free trade zone” which covers nearly a third of the world’s trade and economic output.

The word “free” is much more open to challenge than the claim about secrecy.

The piles of documents which set out the rules and regulations make nonsense of any notion this is a free trade zone for the signatories.  It’s an  easier trade zone for them, perhaps, but free? No.

The announcement of the public signing was one of just a few Beehive released in the past few days.  The others tell us –

  • A Ministerial Summit on Veterans’ Affairs was held in the Republic of Korea last week. Ministers with veteran responsibilities were invited from all 22 countries that had been part of the United Nations Forces during the Korean War (1950 – 1953). The Summit marked the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the war.
  • Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern digitally attended the ASEAN-New Zealand Commemorative Summit and discussed with Leaders a range of shared challenges facing the Indo-Pacific region, such as management of the COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of working collectively to accelerate economic recovery.  The summit, marked the 45th anniversary of the diplomatic partnership between the two parties.
  • Education Minister Chris Hipkins recognised the extraordinary challenges students have faced this year, ahead of NCEA and New Zealand Scholarship exams which begin today.

Ardern and Trade Minister Damien O’Connor – in their statement about the RCEP trade  agreement – said it embraces 15 economies in the Asia Pacific region that take over half of New Zealand’s exports.

They claimed it would:

  • Increase New Zealand’s GDP by around $2 billion (overall)
  • Increase opportunities for NZ exporters to access regional markets
  • Cut red tape and offers one set of trade rules across the Asia Pacific region
  • Offers NZ exporters increased business opportunities through new government procurement, competition policy and electronic commerce.

A range of New Zealand industries would directly benefit from the new agreement, helping to accelerate the country’s economic recovery. These include the education sector, with new access opportunities into large ASEAN economies such as Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.

Our primary industries will also benefit from the new expectation that Customs authorities will release perishable goods within six hours of arrival, helping to reduce spoilage and save money.

The meat industry specifically would benefit from the elimination of tariffs on some meat products into Indonesia.

The free trade agreement also holds significant strategic value for New Zealand, by strengthening and deepening our relationships across the RCEP region, Ardern said.

The signing was portended in an RNZ news item on November 13 which began:

“It’s the world’s biggest trade deal most people have never heard of. New Zealand and 14 other countries from the Asia Pacific region are set to sign a new major trade agreement this weekend – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).”

If most people have never heard of it, perhaps that’s because RNZ and other media haven’t been monitoring progress while it was being negotiated.

The PM has mentioned it more than once in speeches and statements posted on the Beehive website in recent years.

Two days after reporting that NZ was set to sign the agreement, RNZ reported the inevitable bleatings from opponents of “free trade”.

A lobby group concerned about a major trade deal New Zealand signed this evening says the Covid-19 pandemic provides a strong reason why such agreements should be ditched.

This report included statements from one Edward Miller, from It’s Our Future, who said he fears New Zealanders won’t benefit.

“We’re seeing a huge secret agreement being negotiated where we don’t know what the risks are and from the economic modelling that we’ve seen there’s very little economic benefit to be gained.

“So we don’t know why the government continues to do secret deals that are against our national interests.”

The language is curious.   If we were seeing a huge agreement being negotiated, could we reasonably claim it is secret?  And if it was secret, how would we know it was “huge”?

Moreover, if an agreement has been signed (as the Beehive announcement contends), is the agreement being negotiated – or have the negotiations been completed?

But Miller wasn’t finished.  He said there had been no effective public consultation over the deal and claimed that some parts of it “attack” New Zealand’s national interests.

“The economic crisis that has come as a result of Covid is the biggest single economic event that we’ve had in New Zealand history.

“We need to preserve a policy space that will be able to ensure that we have a recovery that suits our people, our planet, our workers’ rights etceteras. We can’t guarantee that under RCEP.”

 We can only wonder what would guarantee it.

Oh – and let the record show the Government’s statement mentions  Covid-19, too:

“Securing free trade agreements like RCEP is an important part of New Zealand’s Trade Recovery Strategy, helping to put New Zealand in the best possible position to recover from the economic impacts of COVID-19 and seize new opportunities for exports and investment,” Jacinda Ardern said.

But we are bemused not by the challenge of deciding if the agreement will or will not impede our efforts to recover from Covid-19.

No.  We are bemused by the number of times the government has slipped up in its efforts to keep the agreement secret.

Without illegally tapping into confidential files, we found

On the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade website, a search for “Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership” drew attention to 105 documents, including this mention in MFAT’s annual report in 2016/17.

Trade diversification is crucial to New Zealand’s economic success. Over the past year, we made progress on a potential 11-country Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement; negotiations with China to upgrade our free trade agreement; the launch of negotiations with the Pacific Alliance; Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership negotiations; work towards signature of a free trade agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council; and preparations for free trade agreement negotiations with the European Union. 

A more recent document on MFAT’s Strategic Intentions 2020-2024 lists “priority deliverables” over 2020–2024, which include the conclusion and entry into force of European Union FTA and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.   

Oh – and the MFAT website has a section which explains how the public can engage on trade matters.

We are keen to respond to New Zealanders’ concerns and interests around trade agreements. You can contact us about any trade agreement at any time.



We also organise public meetings where New Zealanders can meet us in person and discuss our trade agreements. A large portion of each meeting is set aside for Q&A and views expressed are reported to Ministers for their consideration.

These meetings are advertised through email, our website, and facebook and twitter accounts. If you are interested in attending future events and would like to be added to the mailing list, let us know at

Edward Miller should give this a go.

Latest from the Beehive

15 NOVEMBER 2020

New Zealand signs Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Minister for Trade and Export Growth Damien O’Connor have announced the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) was today fully concluded and signed.

Minister acknowledges students as exams begin

Education Minister Chris Hipkins has recognised the extraordinary challenges students have faced this year, ahead of NCEA and New Zealand Scholarship exams which begin on Monday.

14 NOVEMBER 2020

Prime Minister meets with key ASEAN and East Asia Summit partners

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern today attended the ASEAN-New Zealand Commemorative Summit and discussed with Leaders a range of shared challenges facing the Indo-Pacific region.

13 NOVEMBER 2020

Veterans Affairs Summit held in Korea

A Ministerial Summit on Veterans’ Affairs was held in the Republic of Korea this week.

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