SINGAPORE – The 16 mostly Asian countries negotiating what will be the world’s largest free trade area might not be able to achieve their target of a substantive deal by the year’s end, an official source familiar with the talks has said.
Leaders of the countries participating in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership free trade pact, who will meet in Singapore later this month for their summit, are likely to say that they have made “substantive progress” rather than saying they have achieved their target of substantial agreement, the source said Friday.
The biggest obstacle is the lowering of tariffs for goods, with India reluctant to offer anything that is politically sensitive as the country will be going through an election next year, the source said.
The RCEP countries are still struggling to try and forge an agreement after more than five years and 24 rounds of negotiations since May 2013. They missed the first deadline that they set to wrap up the talks in 2015, and continued to miss other deadlines.
Indonesia Director General for Trade Negotiations Iman Pambagyo has urged that RCEP members substantively complete the agreement as soon as possible so that it can be signed at the end of next year, according to a statement issued by the Indonesian Trade Ministry after the 24th round of negotiations, held from Oct. 18-27 in Auckland.
He was quoted as saying in the statement that the negotiators were able to make some meaningful progress in that round but have not reached the target set by RCEP ministers in August this year for a package of deliverables to be achieved so as to strike a substantial conclusion by the end of this year.
He also said that the recent negotiators’ meeting in Auckland also agreed on the concept for the statement to be issued by RCEP leaders regarding the status of the pact’s negotiations at the end of their meeting in Singapore.
At their gathering in August, the RCEP trade ministers adopted a package of deliverables that they hoped to achieve by year-end, and that would “signify the substantial conclusion of the RCEP negotiations.” The package comprises four parts — goods, services, investment and intellectual property rights.
The trade negotiators concluded the chapter on a dispute mechanism in Auckland, bringing the total number of chapters they have concluded so far to five.
Iman urged participants in the negotiations to stick to the principles of negotiations which have been agreed on, such as responding to the requests of other countries in a positive way and to appreciate the sensitivity of other countries and to show flexibility.
He also said that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations should get a better offer from negotiating countries that are outside the region in the negotiations.
The outstanding politically sensitive issues will be tackled by the RCEP ministers when they meet in Singapore on Nov. 12 before the RCEP leaders’ summit, which will be held on Nov. 14.
The RCEP negotiating countries are the 10 ASEAN countries — Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — plus Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.
Norazman Ayob, deputy secretary-general (trade) at Malaysia’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry, was quoted by The Star newspaper as saying last month that concluding the pact by year-end was challenging due to differing levels of development among the countries involved, as well as political factors including general elections next year in India and Australia.