ICTSD | 5 July 2017
RCEP trade ministers set end-2018 target for “package of outcomes”
The top trade officials from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) coalition have pledged to endorse a “package of outcomes” by the end of the year, in a bid to help wrap up nearly six years of negotiations.
“At this point in time, we have a reached a stage where we are very near, and we can see the possibility of having a substantive conclusion for the RCEP negotiations by the end of this year,” said Singapore’s Minister of Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing, according to comments reported by the Straits Times.
“I would encourage every one of us here, at this juncture, to seize the moment, and exercise maximum flexibility for us to close the last few steps of our negotiation,” Chan added, having served as one of the meeting’s chairs.
In a joint media statement, RCEP trade ministers tasked negotiators to “focus efforts towards achieving a package of year-end outcomes.” They noted the progress across all areas and agreed to focus on finding breakthroughs to bring the talks to a successful, quick close.
The other meeting chair, Japanese Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry Hiroshige Seko, also told the same news agency that he foresees a trade deal by the end of 2018, should countries ramp up their negotiating efforts. “I know it’s not easy, but depending on our political will and how we go about it, it is more than feasible,” he said.
Tokyo hosted the ministerial meeting, which was held on Sunday 1 July and, along with Singapore and Japan, also brought together officials from Australia, Brunei, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam. The Secretary-General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Dato Lim Jock Hoi, was also in attendance.
Officials from the RCEP trade bloc, built around ASEAN and its six FTA partners, have indicated that the final version of the accord could be pivotal for the region, attracting greater trade and investment flows. Proponents say it would also be yet one more sign of support for the wider multilateral trading system.
“The RCEP negotiations send an important signal to the world that we are committed to opening new markets, free trade, and the rules-based global trading system,” said Australian Trade Minister Steven Ciobo prior to meeting.
The joint media statement similarly highlighted the value of RCEP for supporting multilateralism while also serving as a bulwark against a potentially rising tide of unilateral actions. The RCEP deal, the ministers said, is particularly important given “the current global trade environment, which faces serious risks from unilateral trade actions and reactions, as well as their debilitating implications on the multilateral trading system.”
“As we are faced with concerns of the rise of protectionism in the world, all of us in Asia must unite, and our future depends on whether we can keep hoisting our flagship principle of free and fair trade,” said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the ministerial meeting, according to comments reported by First Post.
The Japanese leader reportedly highlighted other trade developments involving some RCEP members, such as the advances towards ratifying a separate deal known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the impending signature of the EU-Japan trade accord. (See Bridges Weekly, 28 June 2018)
RCEP negotiators launched the talks formally in 2012, and have held 22 negotiating rounds to date, along with a series of “intersessional” meetings among ministers. The coalition had previously hoped to wrap up a deal within a couple of years, and has repeatedly extended the timeframe due to substantive disagreements or the need for continued technical work.
The bloc builds upon the existing agreements of ASEAN with its six dialogue partners, namely, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. The future comprehensive agreement will address topics such as goods and services trade, investment, economic and technical cooperation, intellectual property, competition, dispute settlement, e-commerce, and small and medium-sized enterprises, among others.
The ASEAN bloc is also pursuing its own agenda, focused on greater economic integration, trade and investment liberalisation, and connectivity. (See Bridges Weekly, 3 May 2018)
RCEP comprises 18 chapters, of which just two have been concluded after six years of negotiations. Those include economic and technical cooperation and small and medium-sized enterprises.
Officials note, however, that they have made significant progress in many of the other chapters that are still outstanding, though participants still have diverging views on how to approach topics like electronic commerce and data, along with different aspects of farm trade and services, given the competitiveness of certain RCEP members in these sectors.
For example, agriculture is reportedly a key sticking point between Australia, New Zealand, and India, while data management and intellectual property rights are said to have fuelled debate between Australia, China, and Japan, in light of differing approaches to these subjects.
Development issues were also highlighted as a priority in the joint media statement, which said that RCEP countries seek to “achieve an agreement that would allow economies of different levels of development to actively participate in and benefit from an open and inclusive regional economic integration.”
“We’re aiming for a high-quality agreement, but we’re prepared to be flexible,” said Seko to the Nikkei Asian Review. Another Japanese official told the same publication that Tokyo and perhaps other, while still looking for a high-quality deal, would not necessarily be trying to match the same levels of liberalisation seen in other recent regional accords.
Pushing for a year-end deal
Officials have already confirmed a series of meetings over the coming months, in a bid to wrap up the “package of outcomes” in time for a leaders’ level summit held annually by ASEAN, which would also be before electoral processes begin next year in some RCEP countries, such as Australia, India, Indonesia, and Thailand. The ASEAN event will be in Singapore this coming November.
Already on the docket between now and the ASEAN meet are negotiators’ level meetings in Thailand this month, as well as another ministerial in Singapore next month that some officials say could be a key turning point for the talks.
“We hope that by the ministers’ meeting in August we will be able to lock in the substantive part of the negotiations, and then we can work out the minor details, in preparation, for the leaders’ meeting at the end of the year,” Chan told the Straits Times.
ICTSD reporting ; “RCEP ministerial meeting kicks off in Tokyo, leaders express hope for major progress,” THE STRAITS TIMES, 1 July 2018 ; “RCEP meeting in Tokyo : 16 Asian countries agree to reach basic consensus on regional trade pact by end of 2018,” FIRSTPOST, 2 July 2018 ; “RCEP on track for substantial agreement by year-end in big win for free trade : Chan Chun Sing,” THE STRAITS TIMES, 1 July 2018 ; “RCEP trade pact members seek year-end deal despite differences,” NIKKEI ASIAN REVIEW, 2 July 2018.