Eyeing November Leaders' Meeting, RCEP Ministers Pledge to "Maximise Progress"

14 September 2017

Economic ministers from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) countries pledged to ramp up their negotiating efforts on an extensive regional free trade deal, following a meeting in Pasay City, Philippines, last weekend.

“All countries are hard at work to resolve the key outstanding issues in the negotiations,” said Ramon Lopez, Trade and Industry Secretary of the Philippines, in a press briefing following the 10 September meeting.

The joint media statement from RCEP ministers notes that they “reaffirmed their commitment to further intensify efforts in a cooperative manner for the swift conclusion of the RCEP negotiations in line with the leaders’ mandate.”

Highlighting the major outcomes of RCEP’s fifth ministerial meeting, Lopez noted that ministers have signed off on a “key elements paper” which is designed to help the talks reach “significant outcomes and give momentum towards substantial conclusions in future negotiations.”

The title of the section on RCEP negotiation outcomes in Lopez’s official report reads “Pragmatic Recalibration,” with the content of that section emphasising members’ continued commitment to push the pact forward.

Regional discussions, according to Ceferino Rodolfo, Trade Undersecretary of the Philippines, are a “crucial juncture” giving the wider global economic and geopolitical context. “It is important for RCEP to step up and set the example for the pursuit of freer trade,” Rodolfo said.

“RCEP is the only game in town given the current negotiations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” he added. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a comprehensive trade accord that was originally signed by 12 countries, some of which are also members of RCEP. Negotiators from that group are working to determine how to advance with the trade deal since the US withdrew earlier this year. (For more on the TPP, see related story, this edition)

RCEP is currently under negotiation among the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and that group’s six free trade agreement partners, all located in the Asia-Pacific region. These countries include Australia, China, Japan, Korea, India, and New Zealand.

The mega trade pact aims to cover goods, services, investment, competition policy, and intellectual property rights, among other issues. The most recent round of negotiation was held in Hyderabad, India, in late July. (See Bridges Weekly, 3 August 2017)

The next negotiating round for RCEP is scheduled for mid-October in Korea, in the run-up to the leaders’ meeting in November.

Market access, rules

Various officials and trade watchers have noted that the scope of the negotiations and the diversity of the membership have complicated past efforts to finalise the talks. Negotiations for RCEP started in 2012, with the deadlines for conclusion repeatedly rescheduled to later dates.

This time, officials say the push to achieve “substantial” deliverables is fuelled partly by the 50th anniversary of ASEAN. Ministers referred to this upcoming date in their joint media statement, stating that “the substantial conclusion of the RCEP had been identified as a priority deliverable for ASEAN’s milestone year.”

“Ministers also recognised the scale of the remaining work and called on all [RCEP participating countries] to focus both efforts and resources to maximise progress towards significant outcomes,” they said.

In their joint statement, RCEP ministers referred to market access offers and “trade-facilitating rules” as areas where they hope to see continued progress going forward, while noting that a final “landing zone” would need to be “mutually agreeable to and doable.”

Regarding market access, officials say that they need to advance their work on setting the coverage and the timeframe for tariff cuts. According to comments by Lopez to Chinese media outlet Xinhua, the elements include “more realistic ambitions when it comes to percentage products for inclusion, the phase-in or the timing of each inclusion, will it be in the next 10 years, 15 years.”

The two main focal points of the above-mentioned “key elements paper” are market access and rules, according to comments by Ceferino Rodolfo, Trade Undersecretary of the Philippines, to the Manila Shimbun news agency. For example, Rodolfo said that on rules, negotiators hope to have a better sense of individual participants’ perspectives.

The elements would “guide negotiations towards significant outcomes,” says the statement released by the Department of Trade and Industry of the Philippines. “We can ensure that commitments from each party would have a more concrete impact on the negotiation process, veering away from the plain talks on modalities,” it adds.

ASEAN economic agenda

The RCEP high-level negotiation was a part of a broader regional agenda within the 49th ASEAN Economic Ministers’ meeting.

The latter also included consultations with ASEAN’s dialogue partners, such as Australia, Canada, China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Russia, and the United States. There were also meetings devoted to ASEAN’s internal agenda, including the free trade and investment area.

In his speech to ministers for the ASEAN meeting’s opening ceremony, Lopez urged the bloc’s ministers to expedite the RCEP talks.

“The substantial conclusion of RCEP remains high on ASEAN’s overall economic agenda, and is priority deliverable for the Philippines chairmanship of ASEAN 2017 and in time for the 50th anniversary of ASEAN,” he said.

Lopez’s official statement also stressed ASEAN’s centrality in the negotiation process, stating that ministers aim to make “ RCEP truly ASEAN-led and ASEAN-centric.”

The efforts to clinch an RCEP deal come as the 10 ASEAN countries are also working to meet the goals set out in their ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) Blueprint. Planned for completion by 2025, AEC will represent a high-level regional integration structure.

The 49th ASEAN ministerial meeting also addressed topics such as the coalition’s economic performance, as well as other priority economic deliverables under the Philippines’ chairmanship, along with the implementation of AEC.

ICTSD reporting; “Realistic targets” being finalized in RCEP negotiations: Philippine official,” MANILA SHIMBUN, 11 September 2017; “RCEP ministers agree on ‘key elements’ to speed up talks on ‘mega trade pact,’ XINHUA, 11 September 2017.

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