PORT MORESBY - Foreign Minister Taro Kono on Thursday called for an early conclusion to negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a day after 16 members of the envisaged Asian free trade agreement failed to reach a broad deal targeting a year-end deadline.
At a ministerial meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Port Moresby, Kono also expressed concern about protectionism in a veiled criticism of U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” trade policy.
With the RCEP members eyeing a deal next year, Kono said the 16 nations including Japan, China, Australia and India will continue to vigorously negotiate so they can conclude a pact that is comprehensive, balanced and the highest standard possible.
Kono, however, underscored the significance of the revised Trans-Pacific Partnership — an 11-nation, high-standard FTA — set to come into force on Dec. 30, saying that the development will help maintain and strengthen the free trade system. The revised deal was formally called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
RCEP does not involve the United States, and Trump withdrew the United States from the TPP last year.
In a veiled counter to Trump’s “America First” mantra, Kono pledged that Japan will take the lead in advancing trade liberalization, strengthening the free and open order, and ensuring that the Asia-Pacific region will continue to serve as a center of world growth.
In the meeting of APEC foreign and trade ministers, analysts were watching whether 21 member economies would call for efforts against protectionism as part of endeavors to advance free trade and deepen regional economic integration.
The ministers were discussing ways to address market-distorting measures such as intellectual property violations and industrial subsidies, in a counter to what the United States and other countries regard as China’s unfair trade practices, according to delegates.
Using the TPP and RCEP as building blocks, the ministers were also studying measures to realize an APEC-wide free trade agreement called the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, covering about half of global trade and 60 percent of the world economy, the delegates said.
The ministerial meeting paves the way for a two-day APEC summit starting Saturday in the Papua New Guinea capital — an event that will bring together Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in lieu of Trump, among other regional leaders.
APEC groups the TPP members — Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam — together with China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Russia, the United States, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand.
The RCEP groups the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus Japan, China, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.