BANGKOK: The leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) will push for the early conclusion of a China-backed trade pact at a regional meeting in Thailand this week as Beijing’s bruising trade war with Washington rumbles on.
If signed, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) will be the world’s largest trade pact and is seen as a way for Beijing to cement trade ties in Asia as Washington retreats from the region.
The RCEP is the proposed free trade agreement between the ten Asean member-states and its six free trade agreement partners — Australia, People’s Republic of China, India, Japan, Republic of Korea and New Zealand.
Speaking to reporters in Bangkok on Saturday, Philippine Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez said the trade ministers of the Asean countries could report “a very positive development” and “substantial progress” on the preliminary conclusion of RCEP, following their meetings, ahead of the regional summit.
“All the trade ministers were finalizing the RCEP. As you all know very well, everyone is working very hard, including the negotiators, the ministers so that we can present a very positive news to the leaders when they meet on November 4,” Lopez told a news conference.
“I think what we can say is that we can report a very positive development. There’s really a substantial progress. Shall we say near conclusion or preliminary conclusion so that we can have a very positive report come Monday,” he added.
The free-trade pact, according to Lopez, would likely be signed in February 2020, as 18 out of 20 the chapters were concluded during the Asean trade ministers’ meeting on Friday.
“Text-based wise, I would say it’s almost concluded. All countries are in, but in text-based chapters of course one country would prefer to have some kind of confirmation before they can really totally agree to the conclusion of all these 20 chapters,” he said.
“After this, there would be a continuing negotiation on the remaining items as part of the market access area, which hopefully can be finished by about February next year,” Lopez added.
Southeast Asian leaders are hoping for a breakthrough in RCEP talks at this weekend’s meeting of the Asean, after seven years of negotiations over the deal, which would comprise 30 percent of global commerce and half the world’s population if signed.
RCEP negotiations were formally launched in November 2012 at the Asean Summit in Cambodia and were initially set to wrap up in 2015.
“They will try to get enough together so they can sign something [even if it is not a final deal],” said Juan Sebastian Cortes-Sanchez, a Singapore-based policy analyst at the Asian Trade Center.
But members risk losing steam after dozens of rounds of negotiations and several missed deadlines to sign the pact.
Commerce ministers met also on Friday after an hours-long negotiation session to hammer out sticking points, as India digs in over concerns its market will be flooded with cheap made-in-China goods.
“There is one last step that every country has to find the solution to,” Thai Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanawisit said at the start of the meeting.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will attend the three-day summit in Bangkok — officially kicking off on Saturday amid a backdrop of heavy security — where simmering tensions in the South China Sea will also top the agenda.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will also be there, as he battles fears at home that key industries like metals, textiles and dairy could be hard-hit by RCEP.
New Delhi’s foreign ministry on Thursday said “critical” issues remain to be ironed out, while Indian farmers planned nationwide protests on Monday to demand more input into the deal’s terms.
This week’s Asean summit comes as Washington and Beijing push for the signing of a partial agreement in a bid to roll back months of tit-for-tat tariffs on billions of dollars worth of goods that have rattled both economies.
The RCEP is seen as a way for China to assert its trade dominance in Asia after the United States’ pullout of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in 2017, which would have been the world’s biggest free trade deal.
Australia and New Zealand have called for better labor and environmental rights, without which RCEP critics fear trade standards could drop in Asia.
It could also work to further isolate the US from Asia after its pullout from the TPP, which has since been reborn as a watered-down version without Washington.
If the RCEP is signed, it will be “another blow to (the United States’) ability to be able to engage with Asia Pacific,” Cortes-Sanchez said.
In what is being read by some as a snub to this weekend’s meeting, the US will send national security adviser Robert O’Brien and commerce Chief Wilbur Ross.
US Vice President Mike Pence attended last year’s Asean summit in Singapore, and US President Donald Trump was at the 2017 meeting in the Philippines.
But Trump’s failure to show this year is a “missed opportunity,” analyst Thitinan
Pongsudhirak of Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University said.
“Showing up counts for everything,” he added.
Disputes over the flashpoint South China Sea will also dominate weekend talks as members attempt to inch ahead with a so-called “code of conduct” for the resource-rich waterway, which Beijing claims most of.
China has long been accused of deploying warships, arming outposts and ramming fishing vessels– toking anger from other claimants.
Tensions flared in recent weeks as a Chinese survey vessel toured Vietnam-claimed waters, prompting fiery demands from Hanoi for it to leave.
The incident “will be a major sticking point” for code of conduct talks, said Le Hong Hiep of Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute.
Analyst Lynn Kuok said despite recent tensions in the sea, code of conduct talks would grind on in the lead-up to a 2021 deadline for a deal.
“It is better for parties to be talking than not at all,” Kuok, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in will also be in Thailand for an East Asia summit on Monday.
Security, meanwhile, was beefed up across Bangkok — with 17,000 police and security officers deployed — after multiple small bombs went off at an Asean meeting in August, injuring at least four in operations blamed on southern Thai insurgents.
With a reports from AFP