SINGAPORE – Ministers from the 16 countries negotiating what could become the world’s largest free trade area agreed in Singapore Friday on a package of deliverables they hope to achieve by the end of the year.
In a joint statement released after the meeting, they “expressed the hope that completion of the package would signify the substantial conclusion of the RCEP negotiations this year.” The meeting was held to give a political push to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
The package comprises four components — markets for goods, services, investment and intellectual property rights.
“It was a very intense discussion in the last two days because there were gaps that we need to fill in among some of the members,” an official from an Association of Southeast Asian Nations country said.
“Now that we have agreed on the package, it will be easier for the negotiators now to have a path forward in trying to find a conclusion to those difficult areas,” the official said.
Asked about the difficulties between China and India, which are said to have posed the main stumbling block in the negotiations over the past several years, the official said there is a need for some kind of a middle path for them to reach a mutually beneficial agreement.
Indian Minister of Commerce and Industry Suresh Prabhu said he had concerns during the meeting about some of the elements in the proposed agreement.
He said India continues to face social challenges in terms of poverty and its large agriculture-based population.
“All those concerns have been expressed and I am sure they’ll be addressed by negotiations which we will continue in 2019,” he said.
Another ASEAN member official said that while all 16 countries agreed on the targets in the package, they have not yet succeeded because there are sensitive, political issues requiring government consultation.
He said the negotiating countries “need to be flexible, to accommodate the differing levels of development of certain countries.”
Officials said an RCEP chief negotiators’ meeting is slated to be held in Auckland in late October before the next ministerial meeting, just before the ASEAN leaders’ summit in November.
RCEP includes the 10 ASEAN countries — Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — plus Japan, China, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.