China-backed RCEP trade pact in 'final stage,' deal eyed in 2019: Singapore

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Negotiations for a major China-backed trade agreement have moved to a final stage and Southeast Asian states involved in the talks are determined to wrap up the deal in 2019, Singapore, current chair of the 10-nation group, said on Wednesday.

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks during the opening ceremony of the 33rd ASEAN Summit in Singapore November 13, 2018. REUTERS/Edgar Su

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) along with China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand, had hoped to reach broad agreement on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) pact at summit meetings in Singapore this week.

“We noted with satisfaction that the RCEP negotiations have advanced to the final stage, and we expressed our determination to conclude a modern, comprehensive, high quality, and mutually beneficial RCEP in 2019,” said a statement issued by Singapore.

Earlier on Wednesday, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned that the deal was at risk of losing credibility if negotiations were further prolonged, while Beijing said talks on the deal this week were at a “critical moment.”

“Market access negotiations have advanced substantially, bringing us closer to finalization next year. We are now at the final stage of negotiations,” Lee told a meeting of the leaders of the 16 countries involved in the talks.

“Further prolonging negotiations puts the RCEP at risk of losing credibility and support from our stakeholders,” Lee said, adding that businesses and citizens will miss major opportunities should the talks drag on.

Negotiations began in 2012 for RCEP, which envisions the creation of a free trade zone that will encompass 45 percent of the world’s population and more than a third of its GDP, but does not involve the United States.

“We have come to a crucial moment now. We have to continue the momentum, so that we can wrap up the deal with the finishing touches and aim to conclude negotiations next year,” Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said in a statement issued by China’s foreign ministry.

RCEP talks were given new impetus after President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the competing Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal in one of the first acts of his administration.

Eurasia Group analysts said Singapore and several other ASEAN members had been pushing hard to achieve a substantial conclusion to the talks this week.

“However, an announcement along these lines is unlikely, as member countries have yet to agree on the broad framework for market access for goods, services and investment,” the group said in a note on Tuesday.

India and Japan are among the countries with reservations about the pact, analysts and sources close to the discussions said.

Sudhanshu Pandey, an official in India’s Ministry of Commerce, said on Wednesday that India had wanted to see more progress on services, which constitute more than 50 percent of the GDP of most of the RCEP countries.

But he added that India supported the deal and had urged “early conclusion” of the talks.

Writing by Jack Kim and John Geddie; Editing by John Chalmers and Raju Gopalakrishnan