Thailand says 'good feeling' over China-backed trade pact

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand has a “good feeling” that a China-backed free trade pact for countries with nearly half the world’s population will be agreed this year after years of delay, a Thai official said on Friday.

Negotiators for the 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) are in the Thai capital this week to try to finalize what could become the world’s largest free trade zone with a third of global gross domestic product.

Progress in talks that began in 2012 has been held up by disputes between China and India over access to markets and lists of protected goods. India wants safeguards to be built into the proposed pact to prevent a sudden surge in imports.

But Thailand said the trade agreement was on track to be concluded while it chairs the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) this year - and ideally before an RCEP summit on Nov. 4.

“We still have a good feeling ... that all 16 members, including India, are willing to try to solve the remaining differences,” said Auramon Supthaweethum, director-general of Thailand’s Department of Trade Negotiations. “Our target is still to have a good deal by the end of this year.”

First proposed by China, RCEP comprises the ASEAN member states and six Asia-Pacific countries: China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. ASEAN has existing free-trade agreements with all six Asia-Pacific countries.

RCEP members were working on two parallel negotiations, on market access in goods and services, and on a draft agreement text, the official said.

Market access negotiations, conducted bilaterally, were already 80.4% completed, with 16% of the remainder “near conclusion,” Auramon said, adding that an outstanding 3.6% still need to be discussed urgently.

Countries that don’t have existing free trade agreements with each other, such as China and India, may take longer in their talks, said Auramon.

“Members are spending the remaining period trying to get rid of some differences and trying to conclude talks,” she said.

“Because it’s done bilaterally, we don’t know the details of their discussions,” she added.

India has reached an agreement in principle with other countries to include a safeguard mechanism that would trigger duties if goods are deemed to have been dumped from a partner country, a source with knowledge of the negotiations told Reuters in India last week.

Fourteen chapters of the 20-chapter text have so far been approved by all members, Auramon said.

ASEAN and its partners will hold three more RCEP-related meetings before an RCEP summit early next month, where ASEAN leaders expect to announce the success of the talks.

“It’s a significant year, with global trade disputes and uncertainties, and nobody wants to lose out,” Auramon said.

(This story has been refiled to remove an extra word in paragraph 9, move paragraph 10 down to 12)

Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Matthew Tostevin