By Phuwit Limviphuwat
The region is ready for the next move to negotiate the remaining 13 chapters of the trade deal together as a bloc at the upcoming senior economic officials’ meeting to be held at the end of this month in Melbourne, Australia.
The mega-trade deal, which has been stuck in negotiations for the past seven years, has a total of 20 chapters, seven of which have been completed thus far. Member countries include the 10 Asean nations along with China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
In 2018, trade between the RCEP countries represented up to a third of global trade. Thailand’s trade value with the RCEP countries was worth some US$70 billion in 2018. Thailand’s exports to the RCEP countries currently accounts for 58 per cent of its total exports, according to the Commerce Ministry.
Thailand, as this year’s Asean chair, has set a bold target of completing the negotiations for this mega-trade pact by the end of this year.
“Asean trade officials had the opportunity to meet and discuss Asean’s stance on the RCEP as they accompanied their leaders to the 34th Asean Summit happening over the weekend in Bangkok,” said Auramon Supthaweethum, director-general of the Commerce Ministry’s Department of Trade Negotiations (DTN).
“At today’s meeting, Asean members reconfirmed their position to push for completion of the RCEP negotiations by the end of this year,” she said.
Overall, the director-general said, Asean has established a common position on the RCEP negotiations and from June 25 to July 3, senior economic officials of all 16 RCEP members will meet in Melbourne, Australia, to discuss further details of the mega-trade deal.
Negotiating with the remaining six members as a 10-country bloc will allow Asean to facilitate more progress in the negotiations process when the 16 RCEP countries meet, she said.
Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc stated in an exclusive interview via email with The Nation: “In the context of increasing trade tensions and protectionism, promoting RCEP negotiations bear an important meaning as it strengthens rule-based multilateral economic connectivity and free trade throughout the Asia Pacific region.
“During the second RCEP Summit in Singapore in November 2018, leaders of each RCEP member reaffirmed our resolution to conclude negotiations for RCEP in 2019. So far, RCEP negotiating states are pressing ahead to resolve remaining problems,” he continued. “We look forward to the conclusion of the negotiations by the end of this year.”
The Vietnamese prime minister revealed that the 28th round of RCEP negotiations will be hosted by Vietnam in October, which will be the last round of negotiations this year ahead of the third RCEP Summit in Bangkok, which will be held in November.
“Vietnam hopes that for the spirit of broadening cooperation, ensuring equality and mutual interests, all sides will reach an agreement to finalise the RCEP negotiations as promised,” he said.
The current challenge is that India and China, members of the trade bloc, have no free trade agreement to build upon, and have been holding up completion of some chapters to gain leverage in negotiations on other chapters. Hence, the remaining 13 chapters will be concluded together as they are interlinked with one another, according to a source familiar with the matter who asked to remain anonymous.
The source revealed that India is concerned that its market will be swamped with Chinese goods once tariffs are lowered and has shown signs of reluctance towards settling some aspects of the RCEP sub-chapter requirements.
This is in contrast to the Asean region, which already has free trade agreements among themselves as well as with the remaining six countries.
The seven chapters that have been concluded relate to customs regulations; sanitary and phytosanitary measures; technical barriers to trade; overall cooperation; small and medium-sized enterprises; government procurement; and institutional provisions, according to the DTN.
Meanwhile, the outstanding chapters pertain to initial provisions; rules of origin; trade in goods; trade remedies; trade in services; trade in financial, telecom and professional sectors; movement of natural persons; investment, intellectual property; e-commerce; competition; general provisions; dispute settlement and final provisions.