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Map: Danielle Alberti/Axios

The largest free trade area in the world came into existence over the weekend — and the U.S. was not even invited.

Why it matters: For the first time in living memory, the hegemon at the center of a major global free trade agreement is not the U.S.

  • China has stepped into Uncle Sam's shoes, and now anchors the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, an area covering 2.2 billion people and 1/3 of all the economic activity on the planet.

The big picture: President-elect Joe Biden is expected to seek a broad multilateral alliance to pressure China on everything from trade to human rights once he becomes president. But China is making broad multilateral alliances of its own.

  • RCEP includes rich democracies such as South Korea, Japan, and Australia. Their position in this major free trade area will make it that much harder for Biden to unite them against China.

Flashback: The Obama administration was explicit that the U.S. should be the anchor of a Pacific Rim trade agreement, the TPP, that pointedly excluded China.

  • "China is negotiating a trade deal that would carve up some of the fastest-growing markets in the world at our expense," wrote then-President Obama in 2016.
  • That trade deal is now reality, while America has pulled out of the TPP. There is very little chance that the U.S. will rejoin it under Biden's presidency.

The bottom line: Big new trade pacts are extremely difficult to negotiate. China showed real determination in getting this one done, even as the U.S. demonstrated almost no interest in improving or even maintaining economic relations with the region. China's partners in RCEP are likely to remember for many years which of the two giants was more reliable.

Go deeper

Ben Geman, author of Generate
Jan 15, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Unlocking the ways to meet China's carbon emissions goal

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

China has a workable path toward making a huge head start on its long-term climate pledges by ensuring that essentially all new power generating capacity added going forward is zero-carbon, a new analysis argues.

Driving the news: The report out today offers what authors call a technically and economically feasible roadmap for transforming China's power sector over the next 10 years.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

  1. Health: CDC director defends agency's response to pandemic — CDC warns highly transmissible coronavirus variant could become dominant in U.S. in March.
  2. Politics: Biden readies massive shifts in policy for his first days in office.
  3. Vaccine: Fauci: 100 million doses in 100 days is "absolutely" doable.
  4. Economy: Unemployment filings explode again.
  5. Tech: Kids' screen time sees a big increase.
  6. World: WHO team arrives in China to investigate pandemic origins.
Dave Lawler, author of World
3 hours ago - World

Alexey Navalny detained after landing back in Moscow

Navalny and his wife shortly before he was detained. Photo: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty

Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny was detained upon his return to Moscow on Sunday, which came five months after he was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok. He returned despite being warned that he would be arrested.

The latest: Navalny was stopped at a customs checkpoint and led away alone by officers. He appeared to hug his wife goodbye, and his spokesman reports that his lawyer was not allowed to accompany him.