The countries involved in negotiating Asia’s most ambitious trade agreement will skip their declared goal of concluding the negotiations by the end of this year and will try to intensify negotiations, official sources said Wednesday.
Leaders from the 16 countries negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement will say that they “will accelerate the negotiation for the swift conclusion without indicating time or date,” in a statement on the progress and future direction of the RCEP talks that they are expected to issue on Thursday afternoon, one source said.
Another high-ranking official, who is not involved in the RCEP negotiations but has a close overall knowledge of Association of Southeast Asian Nations affairs, said “the leaders will read out a statement to re-demonstrate resolve and commitment since they cannot conclude this year.”
The RCEP leaders are in Vientiane this week to attend other meetings related to the annual ASEAN summit.
The RCEP countries are the 10 ASEAN member states plus Japan, China, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand.
Leaders had said in a joint statement in Kuala Lumpur last year that they “look forward to the conclusion of the RCEP negotiations in 2016.”
However, the talks have not made much progress so far, and discussion on details has not begun. With only three months left in 2016, it does not seem realistic to expect that the RCEP will be able to close a deal, and negotiators will probably need another year to continue talks, experts have said.
ASEAN Deputy Secretary General Lim Hong Hin told Kyodo News that “we are trying to find a compromise or middle ground” to meet the “different expectations” among members.
He said that the RCEP is being built upon the existing free trade agreements that ASEAN as a group already has with its dialogue partners. However, these countries outside ASEAN may not have agreements between them. For example, China and India do not have a free trade agreement.
“It is a challenge for the dialogue partners who do not have FTAs between them, so they are trying to find a level of comfort. They have to come up with a common understanding of what they can do.”
According to officials, RCEP is planning to accelerate negotiations by holding three rounds of talks during the rest of this year — one in Tianjin, China in October, one in the Philippines, and another in Indonesia in December this year.
“We would like to make more progress on all sectors,” Lim said.
There are 14 working groups as well as sub-working groups. There is also a trade negotiating committee. Each round is attended by 600-700 officials.
RCEP was launched in 2012 with the original target of concluding a deal by the end of 2015. Even though 14 rounds of negotiations have been held so far, along with four ministerial meetings, it is understood that, as of the middle of this year, the RCEP countries have only submitted initial offers for trade in goods and trade in services, initial reservation lists for investment and initial requests in goods and services.
RCEP has been seen as a China-led initiative, compared to the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which was signed in January this year and is still awaiting ratification by its member countries in order to be implemented.
Some RCEP member countries — Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei — are already part of the TPP. Lately, some ASEAN members — the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand — have started to show an interest in jumping on the TPP bandwagon.
ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.