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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

Jan 26, 2021 - World

Former Google CEO and others call for U.S.-China tech "bifurcation"

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A new set of proposals by a group of influential D.C. insiders and tech industry practitioners calling for a degree of "bifurcation" in the U.S. and Chinese tech sectors is circulating in the Biden administration. Axios has obtained a copy.

Why it matters: The idea of "decoupling" certain sectors of the U.S. and Chinese economies felt radical three years ago, when Trump's trade war brought the term into common parlance. But now the strategy has growing bipartisan and even industry support.

CCP releases two jailed Canadians after Huawei CFO deal with DOJ

Photo: Sheldon Cooper/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Two Canadians imprisoned by the Chinese government for over 1,000 days have been released and are expected to arrive in Canada on Saturday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday.

Why it matters: Their release comes hours after Huawei Technologies CFO Meng Wanzhou reached a deal with the U.S. Department of Justice that resolves the criminal charges against her and could pave the way for her to return to China.

Updated 7 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Arizona GOP's private recount of 2020 election confirms Biden's win

Contractors working on behalf of the GOP examine and recount 2020 ballots at Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix in May. Photo: Courtney Pedroza/Getty Images

In an odd coda to the 2020 election, private contractors conducting a GOP-commissioned recount in Arizona confirmed President Biden’s win in Maricopa County.

Why it matters: The unofficial, party-driven recount has been heavily covered on cable news as part of former President Trump's continued effort to sow doubt about the election result.