RCEP ministers begin talks, seek accord on key parts of giant free trade deal


Ministers from 16 Asia-Pacific countries, including Japan, China and India, began talks Monday in Singapore, in a race to agree on key parts of a free trade deal before the end of the year.

At stake is the creation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership free trade pact, which would be the world’s largest free trade area, covering around a third of the global economy amid intensifying trade friction between the United States and China.

The RCEP trade ministers agreed this summer to complete “a package of deliverables” by year-end. But gaps remain over the package that includes goods, services, investment and intellectual property rights.

The lowering of tariffs on goods is one of the biggest obstacles, a negotiation source has said. The diverse list of participants includes the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.

The RCEP trade chiefs will aim to find common ground over politically sensitive issues and make progress on the negotiations before leaders from the 16 countries gather Wednesday.

Negotiations for the free trade deal began in 2013, with the initial target of wrapping them up in 2015. But the deadline has been postponed repeatedly.

For the envisaged pact, negotiators have effectively concluded five out of 18 chapters, pointing to a long road ahead until full conclusion.

The remaining chapters include trade in goods, intellectual property, e-commerce and the movement of people.

Some RCEP members are part of a separate deal — the revised 11-member Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact that is expected to enter force without the U.S. on Dec. 30.

U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the world’s largest economy from the original TPP in January 2017 in pursuit of his “America First” policy.

The 10 ASEAN countries are Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand plus TPP members Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam.