International trade is the lifeblood of the global economy. Liberation of it from protectionism is never done. It has been long stalled by conflict between rich and poor nations, now compounded by the disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic and the US trade war with China. The news that despite these obstacles, the world’s largest free-trade bloc is to come into effect on January 1 is therefore the biggest boost for global commerce in the 20 years since China joined the World Trade Organization. The RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) accounts for about 30 per cent of the world’s output, trade and population. It groups the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian plus China, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. Led in its formation by China, it is a pact to eliminate tariffs and reduce other trade barriers. Ratification this week by Australia and New Zealand triggered implementation sooner than expected. After surviving US trade war, RCEP signals new chapter for China It is a landmark for free-trade supporters in China, at a time when harsh control measures associated with zero-tolerance of Covid-19 have prompted speculation the country is becoming more inward-looking. It sends a message that while it may have taken a radically different approach to Covid-19, it remains a strong advocate for free trade and that its support has not been diluted by restrictions seen as imperative to safeguard public health, such as lockdowns and border closures. In that respect the green light for RCEP is a significant morale booster for supporters of a more outward-looking approach. Interestingly, ratification by Canberra is a reminder that despite its diplomatic and trade spat with Beijing, life goes on. It also turns the focus on China’s application to join the more ambitious Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which experts have said has the potential to become a game-changer for the world trade system . Australia, like other 10 existing members of the trade pact, has a right of veto over the accession of new members. The CPTPP began as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and was to include the US, until it withdrew. Now it is attracting non-Asia-Pacific countries, including Britain. However, it is a more complex proposition than the RCEP, in terms of labour and environmental protections, and rules to prevent market distortion, protect intellectual property and govern financial services. President Xi Jinping implicitly acknowledged that in an address to the import expo in Shanghai , in which he affirmed China’s push to join the CPTPP and said Beijing was willing to discuss issues such as the digital economy, subsidies and state-owned companies. Concerns about them could scupper China’s bid to join. But Xi reiterated China’s commitment to further open up and its support for free trade, and urged again that any dispute should be handled by the WTO mechanism.