Ministers from 15 Asia-Pacific countries negotiating a sprawling free trade agreement agreed Tuesday to continue aiming for a deal by the end of the year, while keeping the door open for India to return to the talks.
“We believe that India’s participation in (the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) would contribute to the advancement and prosperity of the region. We therefore wish to emphasize that the RCEP remains open for India,” the ministers said in a joint statement following a videoconference.
The 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations along with China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand said last November that they had concluded the bulk of negotiations.
But India, which is concerned that opening up its market would cause its trade deficit with China to grow, said it will no longer participate in the negotiations and has skipped subsequent working-level talks.
Japan was represented in Tuesday’s talks, held remotely due to the novel coronavirus, by Hiroshi Kajiyama, minister of economy, trade and industry.
In the joint statement, the ministers said the pandemic “constitutes an unprecedented challenge for trade, investment and global supply chains that requires a coordinated global response.”
“We shared the view that the signing of the agreement will serve as a clear signal of our unwavering support for the multilateral trading system, regional integration as well as economic development across the region.”
Negotiations on the free trade agreement, which would lower tariffs and set rules on investment and intellectual property for an area covering a third of the global economy and half the world population, began in 2013 but have failed to fulfill a series of deadlines for the signing of a deal.
The participating countries, including the ASEAN members — Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — are trying to convince India to return, though some are willing to conclude a 15-country deal.
Japan, for its part, wants India in the group to counter China’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region.
“Joining RCEP is in India’s interests and would help the entire region prosper. We will continue to work toward its return,” said a Japanese government official.
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