The year 2018 was marked by escalation in trade tensions among the world’s largest economies, mostly via bilateral trade restrictions. This was partly compensated by the advances in regional economic integration, particularly among the countries of the Global South, with the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) being one of the most important advances in this direction. There is far more to come in 2019 in terms of regional economic integration, which is becoming the main neutralizing factor for protectionist pressures in the global economy. In particular, China is now emerging as one of the champions of trade integration and economic openness, with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) potentially being the largest megabloc that could be launched in 2019. Furthermore, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP-11) came into force on December 30, 2018, with significant liberalization impulses unlocked in 2019 on the back of implementation of this agreement.
While regional trading arrangements were long suspect of being potential stumbling blocks to globalism and multilateralism, in the current environment characterized by mounting protectionist pressures, regionalism may turn out to be one of the very few viable options in delivering liberalization impulses across the global economy. Indeed, this is precisely the pattern observed in the Trump era of rising trade barriers from the US – trade agreements are being reconsidered in the direction of greater protectionism (as is the case with the Trans- Pacific Partnership, NAFTA as well as trade bilateral agreements between the US and China), which is in part compensated by new regional integration agreements such as TPP-11 as well as RCEP.