Economic ministers in 11th hour rush to conclude RCEP



The clock is ticking fast for the Asean economic ministers and their six counterparts as they meet today for yet another round of negotiation in the hope of reaching an agreement for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) ahead of the 35th Asean Summit this weekend.

As the world is anxiously watching for its outcome, the Trade Negotiating Committee (TNC) is still ironing out the details of the deal.

The outcome of the negotiation will be jointly announced by leaders of the participating countries, namely all the 10 Asean member states and their six Free-Trade Agreement (FTA) partners - China, Japan, S Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and India - next Monday.

Japanese Trade Minister Hiroshi Kajiyama, who skipped today’s meeting held at the Impact Exhibition and Convention Centre in Nonthaburi, Bangkok to attend parliament, was represented by senior vice-minister of economy, trade and industry, Hideki Makihara.

RCEP, with a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of US$49.5 trillion, which makes up 39 percent of the total global GDP, is set to be the world’s largest trade pact when successfully concluded.

When RCEP comes into effect, it will see a more seamless regional market among the 16 participating countries, including providing new market access, opportunities for goods, services and investment for firms.

Completing the RCEP negotiation has been a top economic priority for Thailand which is also the chair for this year’s biannual summits,

Analysts said the conclusion of the trade pact, which began in 2012, is not only good for Thailand’s economy but is also vital for the kingdom’s diplomacy and international goodwill.

With the negotiation now heading into the final stretch, it is believed that negotiators are still unable to come to terms on at least four outstanding chapters of the 20-chapter text, namely e-investment, e-commerce, rules of origin and trade remedies.

Earlier, media reported that 80.4 percent of goods and services market access negotiations in the RCEP have been concluded, while 16 percent "near conclusion" and 3.6 percent still needed to be discussed urgently.

However, all the RCEP ministers said they are confident, optimistic and have a good feeling the economic trade pact will reach a deal by the end of the year despite repeatedly missed deadlines.

India is widely viewed as the biggest barrier in concluding the RCEP as New Delhi allegedly opposes opening its markets to tariff-free goods and services fearing that the country will be flooded with Chinese goods.

Economists and analysts said countries which do not have a FTA with one another such as China and India, may take longer to talk.

“The successful conclusion of RCEP lies in China-India talks. From the negotiation experiences thus far, I agree that India and China talks are crucial to RCEP's successful conclusion.

“Besides the potential economic gain, India may also be concerned about walking the talk on the country’s "Act East Policy" (AEP) which was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his first visit to the Asean-India Summit in 2014. This implies that India will be working extra hard to be an integral part of RCEP.

“China is undoubtedly a dominant economic player. However, being the RCEP champion, China may not want to exert excessive demands or concession from India such that India may back off,” Malaysian Institute of Economic Research senior fellow Jamal Othman told Bernama.

Several industries in India fear the conclusion of RCEP would cause the market to be flooded with cheaper Chinese goods, while others think the trade pact could cause them to lose their competitive edge.

Commenting on a letter issued by Malaysian International Trade and Industry Minister Darell Leiking to all Asean economic ministers on Malaysia’s change in position on some provisions for the RCEP when the TNC met in Da Nang, Vietnam in September, Jamal believed “any concerns raised will be well deliberated in the final rounds of the negotiations.”

“I am not trying to speculate, but I think that his concerns may be on whether Malaysia has sufficient policy space as safeguards against risks at times of financial or macroeconomic instability.

“The State Dispute Settlement disagreements (entail) some aspects of import safeguards for certain commodities, and the design of the negative list vis a vis services trade, particularly investments and financial liberalisation,” he said.

The RCEP deal is likely to be signed next year if the negotiations could be finalised during the current Bangkok meeting. - Bernama