Asia-Pacific countries poised to start free-trade talks


Sixteen Asia-Pacific countries are set to start talks next month on a free-trade zone that would cover more than half of the world’s population, according to a document obtained Tuesday.

The start of negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership are poised to go ahead despite the bitter territorial rifts among the members, including Japan, China and some Southeast Asian nations.

Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, who will meet in Brunei on Wednesday and Thursday, are expected to focus on kick-starting the talks after launching the process last year at a regional summit in Phnom Penh.

The leaders will agree that “the negotiations will commence in May 2013 in Brunei . . . with a view to completing them by 2015,” according to the latest draft of the chairman’s end-of-meeting statement.

“We looked forward to the broadening and deepening of existing (free-trade agreements) and envisioned the RCEP to be a platform for future trade and investment integration in Asia and the rest of the world,” states the draft, which is being prepared by senior officials and could be changed.

A senior Southeast Asian trade official said the first round of RCEP negotiations are expected to start May 9.

The partnership would cover ASEAN’s 10 member countries — Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — as well as Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.

It aims to tie together ASEAN’s bilateral FTAs with each trading partner but excludes the United States, which is leading talks for the rival Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The TPP involves 12 countries: Australia, Brunei, Chile, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam.

“The RCEP provides an important platform for building trade liberalization within the Asia-Pacific, which is the world’s fastest growing region,” said Rajiv Biswas, chief regional economist at IHS Global Insight. “The initiative is very important as it includes the three major drivers of emerging markets growth — China, India and ASEAN.”

Potential members have said previously they are keen to make progress toward an RCEP, despite being engaged in diplomatic rows over various rival territorial claims in the region.

China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia have competing claims to parts of the South China Sea, and tensions have escalated in recent years amid complaints of increased Chinese aggression.

The dispute over the Senkaku Islands is even more tense, and Japan is also locked in the row with South Korea over Takeshima, which has been under South Korean control for decades as Dokdo, in the Sea of Japan, which the South calls the East Sea.

Biswas said the parties will likely keep pressing ahead on deepening trade links even if territorial tensions continue to rise.

“The South China Sea disputes remain an important risk to East Asian relations, with growing evidence of a regional arms race,” he said. “Nevertheless, China and ASEAN can be expected to give a high strategic priority to pursuing their RCEP negotiations, given the growing importance of intra-Asian trade as a regional growth driver.”