RCEP Ministers Assess Progress, Call for "Further Improvements" Ahead of Year-End Target

18 October 2018

Ministers representing 16 Asia-Pacific countries called for “further improvements” in negotiating a sweeping trade accord, while outlining some advances in talks on the framework of rules for the planned agreement. The meeting, held in Singapore, comes ahead of a 2018 target for endorsing a “package” of agreed outcomes. 

The trade accord in question is known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and would bring together the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and their six free trade agreement (FTA) partners: Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand. Negotiators have been meeting regularly over the past six years, with ministerial meetings interspersed therein, in a bid to craft such a deal.

“The ministers welcomed the intensification of market access negotiations. While appreciating some narrowing of gaps, the ministers emphasised the need for further improvements,” read a joint media statement issued after the 13 October meeting.

The 13 October ministers’ meeting was preceded by negotiations related to market access, which were held last week in the Indonesian city of Jakarta. Since the talks’ launch in November, RCEP members have held two dozen negotiating rounds, along with several ministerial-level meetings, aiming to make progress both on technical issues and politically sensitive subjects. Another negotiating round is set for later this month in Auckland, New Zealand, and RCEP ministers are due to reconvene in November, days before a leaders’ meeting. (See Bridges Weekly, 13 September 2018)

New Zealand Trade Minister David Parker told reporters after the meeting that while final offers remain pending on the main market access areas, “ministers gave a clear message to officials that if possible, the parties want to reach substantial conclusion by the end of the year,” according to comments reported by Kyodo News. The joint media statement issued this weekend affirmed that sentiment, saying that meeting that year-end objective would be “an important milestone, particularly at the time of uncertainties in global trade.”

Some other officials, however, have recently suggested that the 2018 target may be hard to meet. Indian Commerce and Industry Minister Suresh Prabhu told news outlets last month that the negotiations could run into next year, given some of the challenges in negotiating with such an economically diverse set of countries.

The RCEP coalition has set, as its package of desired deliverables for the end of 2018, outcomes on goods and services market access, as well as intellectual property rights and investment. The accord overall is also due to cover economic and technical cooperation, competition policy, dispute settlement, small and medium-sized enterprises, and electronic commerce, according to an ASEAN summary of the deal’s objectives.

If agreed, the accord would cover a market whose population numbers over 3.5 billion people, with a collective GDP of US$25.4 trillion, according to 2017 figures cited by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The negotiations have also been cited as additional incentive for further integration efforts within the ASEAN bloc. For example, the coalition’s ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) Blueprint 2025 named RCEP as a powerful reason to “strengthen [the ASEAN Trade in Goods Agreement, ATIGA] further,” focusing on objectives such as “entrench[ing] ASEAN centrality, strengthen[ing] the ATIGA’s notification process, and bring[ing] down further the remaining tariff barriers in ASEAN towards the free flow of goods in the region.” 

The RCEP talks were also named as a key effort, among various other negotiating processes with other countries, that could help yield “a global ASEAN” that would make sure the coalition would be able to cement its “position as an open and inclusive economic region.” The AEC Blueprint 2025 lays out a roadmap for various regional integration objectives for the 2015-2025 decade.

Regional integration agenda

The RCEP negotiations are part of a concerted effort by many countries in the Asia-Pacific region to both deepen ties among themselves while also develop stronger economic relationships with partners further afield.

Leaders from ASEAN and the European Union will be meeting in Brussels, Belgium, later this week for a summit among themselves, as well as within a wider gathering known as the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), which will be held under the overarching theme of “Global partners for global challenges.” The latter 18-19 October meeting in the Belgian capital city is due to cover three main areas, according to a press summary issued by the European External Action Services: these include “financial and economic issues; global issues and Europe-Asia connectivity; as well as international and regional issues.”

Among the items on the docket for discussion include climate and oceans, along with the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Intensified cooperation on trade and investment is also on the agenda, as is a European Council conclusions document from 15 October on “developing connectivity partnerships” with the Asian continent which, the bloc says, would aim to be “sustainable, comprehensive, and rules-based, and will advance investment and trade.”

That event is also due to see the EU and Singapore sign their long-awaited free trade and investment accords, after the European Council gave the all-clear on 15 October for the signature process to move forward. (For more on the EU-Asia meetings, see related story, this edition).

ICTSD reporting; “RCEP negotiators agree on package of trade objectives to be reached by year-end ,” KYODO, 1 September 2018; “RCEP negotiations not to end in 2018: Prabhu,” OUTLOOK INDIA, 4 September 2018; “RCEP ministers still struggling to reach year-end target,” KYODO NEWS, 14 October 2018.

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