By Supalak Ganjanakhundee
The Nation weekend
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha plans to make a strong push for early conclusion of negotiations over the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) – which promises to become the world’s most influential economic bloc – while chairing the Asean summit on Saturday and Sunday.
The regional grouping needs the cooperation at every turn to cope with rapid global change, he said at a business forum on Friday, citing geopolitical shifts and the trade dispute between major powers the United States and China.
“Thailand is trying to expedite the conclusion of the RCEP negotiations this year,” the premier said. “This is the agreed intention of all of the leaders.”
Asean and its six Asia-Pacific partners – Australia, New Zealand, China, India, Japan and South Korea –agreed seven years ago to liberate mutual trade in goods and services.
Ministers and senior officials of the group have to date reached agreement on seven of the 20 “chapters” in the agreement.
Auramon Supthaweethum, chief of the Trade Negotiations Department at the Commerce Ministry, said it was difficult to foresee the process being completed by year’s end, when Thailand relinquishes the rotating Asean chairmanship.
However, there is optimism based on the success of senior officials making significant progress on a particular tricky chapter early this year, one regarding “rule of origin”, she said.
RCEP negotiations have proceeded slowly during the first half of the year with Australia, Indonesia, India and Thailand – all in the throes of elections – having to wait for further directions from their central governments.
“Now that every member-country knows its election outcome and the representatives know their new government’s policy on the matter, we are optimistic about the trade talks,” Auramon said.
Asean members face fewer obstacles because they are already united under a mutual free-trade agreement and have similar pacts with some partners, such as China and Australia, another official said.
Countries outside Asean with no such agreements in place face greater difficulty, he said.
Prime Minister Prayut also plans to stress security matters, notably transnational crime, according to government spokesman Werachon Sukondhapatipak.
Thailand further intends to highlight a formal statement designating 2019 as the Year of Asean Culture, he said. The heads of government will cooperate in encouraging their people to share their culture, respect differences among them and promote human wellbeing.
The leaders are expected to adopt four major documents, he said – the Asean Leaders’ Vision Statement on Partnership for Sustainability, the Bangkok Declaration on Combating Marine Debris in the region, the Asean Leaders’ Statement on Asean Cultural Year 2019, and “An Asean Indo-Pacific Outlook”.
There will be meeting with parliamentarians, youth groups and the business sector to promote the bloc’s intention to be a “people-centred organisation”, but there are no plans for dialogue with civic groups or a people’s advocacy forum.
Informally, the leaders “might discuss” such heated issue as the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, possibly with an eye to taking a more direct role in resolving it, an official said.
He said the issue would only be considered from the stance of humanitarian need and leaders would refrain from addressing the violence and ethnic cleansing that’s taken place in Rakhine state.
Asean agreed last year to help facilitate the repatriation of Rohingya refugees, but plans to send an initial 2,000 home to Rakhine was scrubbed in November because the refugees had no guarantees of a safe return.
An Asean assessment team visited Rakhine several times between December and May, sending its report to member-countries for consideration.
A Rohingya community leader in Thailand told The Nation they wanted to submit a demand for help to the Asean leaders at the summit, but Special Branch police urged them not to make trouble in Bangkok.
They have instead prepared an open letter with a dozen demands for Myanmar and member-countries where members of their community live and work to guarantee their safety and grant them proper legal status.