Signing Of 16-Nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Expected To Be Pushed Back To 2020

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New Delhi: The signing of the 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is expected to be pushed back to 2020, delaying a deal whose negotiations began seven years ago and which India has insisted must strike a balance between market access and services.

RCEP comprises the 10 Asean states and six of the grouping’s FTA partners—Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea—and leaders of the 16 countries will discuss the deal at a meeting in Bangkok on Monday. An agreement will lead to the creation of the world’s largest free trade region of 3.6 billion people, or nearly half the global population, with 30% of the global GDP.

“Most market access negotiations have been completed and the few outstanding bilateral issues will be resolved by Feb 2020,” said a draft agreement obtained by AFP. India’s position on some of its key concerns has resulted in speculation that the pact may not be finalised at the upcoming meeting.

The statement added the text of all 20 chapters is now complete “pending the resolution of one” member, believed to be India. It further said all members are “committed to sign the RCEP” next year in Vietnam, which will take over the Asean chair.

The RCEP leaders are expected to issue a joint statement signalling the end of negotiations, and leaving outstanding issues to be settled by officials within a time frame.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi repeated India’s concerns during talks with Asean leaders on Sunday. He said India’s unresolved issues include “meaningful market access for all parties”, a diplomat who attended the meeting told AFP.

There is concern in India that small businesses will be hit cheap Chinese imports.

On Saturday, Modi said addressing India’s concerns over “unsustainable trade deficits” was important and opening up the huge Indian market must be matched by openings in areas such as services.

“Overall, we are clear that a mutually beneficial RCEP, in which all sides gain reasonably, is in interests of India and of all partners in the negotiation,” he told Bangkok Post newspaper. India has made “reasonable proposals” and engaged in negotiations with sincerity, and would like to see “commensurate levels of ambition on services from many of our partners, even as we are ready to address their sensitivities”, he said.

It is believed the RCEP deal figured in Modi’s bilateral meetings with his Thai counterpart Prayut Chan-o-Cha and Indonesian President Joko Widodo on Sunday.

The bruising US-China trade war has spurred the other RCEP countries to push for its finalisation.

“In just the past two years, new protectionism measures have affected nearly $1 trillion of world trade,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told a business meeting on the sidelines of the Asean summit. “We’ve been a strong proponent for concluding a high quality RCEP as soon as possible.”

Prayut Chan-o-Cha too called for concluding negotiations for the deal. “We should continue to work to conclude negotiations on the RCEP within this year to stimulate economic growth, as well as trade and investment,” he said.

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