RCEP Negotiators Conclude Nineteenth Round, Push for "Accelerated" Progress

3 August 2017

Trade officials from 16 countries finished up the nineteenth round of negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in Hyderabad, India, last week, aiming to pave the way for a ministerial-level gathering in the Philippines this September.

“The meeting expressed shared commitment to work collectively and in a cooperative manner, to progress the negotiations in an accelerated way,” said a press release from India’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry following the meeting.

“During the 19th round, a set of key elements for significant outcomes, envisaged to be achieved by the end of 2017, were agreed. The meeting also highlighted the need to have balanced discussions to progress negotiation across all areas, and to continue to deliver outcomes,” the press release added. It did not go into specifics on what those elements or outcomes might entail.

The talks took place from 17-28 July in the Indian city, with parties holding “profound negotiations” in various areas, including “goods, services, investment, and regulations,” according to a separate, brief summary from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce.

The RCEP is a proposed free trade deal between the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the six partner countries which have a free trade agreement with the bloc. The 10 ASEAN countries are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Their FTA partners are Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand.

The latest round had various working group meetings scheduled, covering topics such as goods, services, trade remedies, customs clearance, investment, government procurement, competition policy, e-commerce, and dispute settlement.

Next rounds, ministers’ meetings

India’s Commerce Secretary, Rita Teaotia, in her inaugural opening remarks mentioned that advancing RCEP would send a valuable signal against protectionist pressures, so long as the deal is also inclusive.

“While RCEP is a beacon of hope for free trade, its real success will be measured by its ability to bring prosperity, economic growth, decent living standards, new jobs, and greater business opportunities for people of our region in an equitable manner,” she said, according to comments reported by the Times of India

The next round of negotiations is scheduled for 17-28 October in Inchon, South Korea, according to the Chinese ministry press release.

“We are going to have more frequent rounds of negotiations. There will also be a ministerial meeting in September,” said Teaotia in previewing the schedule for the rest of the year. A leaders’ meeting is reportedly expected in November.

Five years in

The RCEP negotiations began nearly five years ago, formally launched in the margins of the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in November 2012. So far, there have been 19 negotiating rounds, along with various ministerial level meets. (See Bridges Weekly, 21 November 2012)

The most recent RCEP ministers’ meeting was this past May in Hanoi, Vietnam, where officials expressed their hopes for a “swift conclusion” while calling for members to “redouble efforts to translate their political commitments into actions.” (See Bridges Weekly, 24 May 2017)

The group had set earlier targets for concluding the deal, which would cover a US$23.8 trillion market with over 3.5 billion people, according to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. They most recently floated the possibility of finalising the talks this year.

Iman Pambagyo, the Indonesian official who serves as the RCEP Trade Negotiating Committee Chair, told the Economic Times this week that the talks may wrap up in 2018, while suggesting that doing so would require additional “flexibility” from the countries involved. Pambagyo is also the Director General of International Trade Cooperation for the Indonesian government.

The RCEP deal is built around ASEAN, a grouping that is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The accord’s guiding principles “recognise ASEAN centrality in the emerging regional economic architecture and the interests of ASEAN’s FTA partners in supporting and contributing to economic integration, equitable economic development, and strengthening economic cooperation among the participating countries.”

The group’s members are also involved in various other trade initiatives, both with select RCEP members and externally. At the bilateral level, currently under formal negotiation are agreements between Australia and India, as well as Australia and Indonesia, to name a few, along with a trilateral deal between China, Japan, and South Korea.

Analysts say, however, that balancing different developmental levels and interests among such a large group of countries will continue to be difficult going forward, while noting that the RCEP talks are advancing nonetheless.

“For RCEP to really move forward, leaders will need to make some hard decisions between now and November,” says a commentary on the latest round from the Asian Trade Centre’s Executive Director, Deborah Elms. Among the more complicated areas, according to the Singapore-based organisation, is market access in goods, while rules of origin, on the other hand, is comparatively more advanced.

ICTSD reporting; “India bats for equitable and inclusive RCEP,” THE TIMES OF INDIA, 25 July 2017; “People's groups demand rejection of RCEP,” THE TIMES OF INDIA, 25 July 2017; “RCEP trade panel head confident of closing talks in 2018,” THE ECONOMIC TIMES, 24 July 2017.

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