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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.

Texas abortion law remains in effect after appeals court ruling

Pro- and anti-abortion protesters outside the Supreme Court as arguments begin about the Texas abortion law on Capitol Hill in November. Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

A U.S. appeals court transferred a challenge to Texas' law banning most abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy to the state supreme court in a 2-1 vote on Monday evening.

Why it matters: The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' decision means the country's most restrictive abortion law can remain in place for the time being.

2 hours ago - World

At least 2 dead after Tonga volcano eruption and tsunami

A satellite image of the explosive eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano on Saturday. Photo: UNICEF/NOAA

At least two people are confirmed to have died in Tonga following the undersea volcanic eruption that sent tsunami waves toward the island nation and across the Pacific over the weekend, officials said Monday.

The big picture: Officials reported major damage along the western coast of the main island of Tongatapu, where the capital, Nuku'alofa, was covered in ash and dust, including on the runway of the airport. A New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson told Axios over the phone that two people had been confirmed to have died in the disaster.