|Trade ministers pose for a photo during the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Ministerial Meeting in Manila Sunday. — Photo Kyodo|
“We have agreed that RCEP should complete negotiations in 2018,” Indonesian Minister of Trade Enggartiasto Lukita told Kyodo News after a meeting in Manila among trade ministers from the countries involved in pursuing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership free trade agreement.
They include the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), plus Japan, China, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Together the group encompasses a population of 3.4 billion people, and a combined gross domestic product of US$49.5 trillion, or approximately 39 per cent of the global economy.
Lukita said he urged countries with excessively high standards to reduce their expectations and be “more realistic and flexible.”
“The principle of flexibility is important,” another source said. “We are so diverse, we have developed countries, developing countries, we have emerging economies, so we have to be realistic.”
“This is the only game in town,” Lukita said in an apparent reference to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, another massive free trade pact which at one point seemed doomed when newly elected US President Donald Trump ordered the US to withdraw from it.
However, the TPP now appears to have renewed prospects for adoption after its 11 remaining signatories agreed on Saturday to keep pursuing its implementation despite the US withdrawal.
It is also not clear if the RCEP countries’ leaders will in fact set a new target date for completing negotiations in 2018 when they meet Tuesday in Manila, as India is against doing so, one ASEAN source said.
Other differences also continue to stymie concluding negotiations that began five years ago.
“RCEP is not going to be settled (soon) as China and India cannot agree on respective coverage of tariff reduction. Also Australia wants more concessions from ASEAN countries on services,” the source said.
“I would assume that would be the message from the leaders. They have been negotiating this for five years, missed two time targets, but now we have a new mandate with the understanding that we have to be more flexible to each other,” said an Indonesian official involved in RCEP.
RCEP had already missed 2015 and 2016 deadlines before officials conceded in recent months the group would not meet its 2017 deadline.
So far “all the parties have submitted their improved offers for goods and services, improved reservations list, so we are moving, although in terms of the value put on the table it is not as high as we would expect. Now the issue for us is how to improve the quality of offers on the table,” the Indonesian official said. — KYODO/VNA