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Ministers vow to conclude talks on Asia-Pacific trade pact in 2019

By KARL WILSON | China Daily | Updated: 2019-03-05 09:00

The venue for a new round of talks of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which started in the western Japanese port city of Kobe on Feb 27, 2017. [Photo/IC]

Trade ministers from China and 15 other nations belonging to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership group have agreed to resolve issues with the aim of reaching a comprehensive agreement by the end of this year.

The ministers made the commitment in a brief statement at the end of their ministerial meeting in the resort town of Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia on Saturday.

In the statement, the ministers acknowledged the good progress already made on both market access and text-based negotiations (the guiding principles and objectives) but recognized more work still needed to be done to "advance both aspects of the negotiations".

The ministers urged all 16 nations involved to address the "specific sensitivities" while working toward achieving "commercially meaningful and balanced outcomes".

Among a number of "sticking points" before a final agreement are tariffs, intellectual property and transfer of information technology.

The partnership, known as RCEP, includes all 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam) and their six trade pact partners: Australia, China, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea and New Zealand.

Together, they would form one of the world's largest trading blocs, accounting for 45 percent of the world population, 40 percent of global trade and around one-third of the world's GDP, Xinhua reported.

The RCEP pact would level tariffs and rules governing the region's complicated supply chains, while improving market access and introducing dispute-resolution mechanisms.

Long-term benefits

Noting Australia, India, Indonesia and Thailand are facing general elections this year, Alice de Jonge, senior lecturer at the Monash Business School, Monash University in Melbourne, said the RCEP is worthwhile pursuing "not so much for the immediate benefits but for the benefits that will be gained in the long-term".

"I'm sure all parties to the RCEP do want an agreement. The question is will it be this year or next? Even if there is no agreement this year there will be a great deal of work being done behind the scenes at a departmental level," she said.

Professor Zhu Ying, director of the Australian Centre for Asian Business at the University of South Australia, also said it is only a question of time when the agreement will be sealed because "the RCEP is too important to ASEAN and the six".

"China has facilitated ASEAN to be the foundation of the grouping which incorporates free trade with north Asia, South Asia, Australia and New Zealand. This will be a very powerful trading bloc," he said.

He said most of the problems such as IT and technology transfer have been sorted out, but the one area that needs more work is India.

"I don't think we will see much movement (on an RCEP agreement) until after the election," he said.

Izuru Kobayashi, chief of operations with the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia, said it was "good the ministers met now".

"It's essential to move the negotiation forward," he said. "It also indicates the intention of Thailand (Chair of ASEAN in 2019) to close the deal by the end of the year."

He said the joint statement "seems to be positive, while somehow moderate".

"It was a very good step forward to the substantial conclusion of the negotiation by the end of this year," he said.

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