BANGKOK: The conclusion of text-based negotiations among 15 out of 16 nations marks a "very major step forward" for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Monday (Nov 4) evening.
Speaking at the end of the 35th ASEAN Summit, Mr Lee said that with 15 economies on board, the agreement was a substantial one.
He also said he understood India's decision to "not yet" join in.
“It’s a pity that India is not yet on board, we hope one day it will come on board. But nevertheless, this is a very major step forward for the RCEP - tremendous progress for which we have to thank the negotiators from all of the countries,” said Mr Lee.
“We understand India’s position. India has made its position clear, (Prime Minister) Modi expressed it in forthright terms.
“And there’s no anxiety or rancour … We fully understand and appreciate India’s point of view. They have made that decision. We respect that decision," he added.
“We hope one day that it will be possible, either because we can overcome the specific issues that are outstanding or India takes a different perspective, (for us to) come together and India will be part of the group," Mr Lee said.
"If possible, it happens by next year then everybody can sign," he added.
Issues on market access as well as some “technicalities” had meant that India did not agree to the deal, said Mr Lee.
The 16-nation RCEP would have accounted for a third of global gross domestic product and nearly half the world's population.
RCEP includes the 10-member grouping of Southeast Asian nations, as well as China, South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
New impetus to complete what could be the world's largest trade deal has come from the US-China trade war, which has helped knock regional economic growth to its lowest in five years.
In the event that India eventually refuses to come on board, each of the other countries will have to assess “feasible possibilities”, said Mr Lee.
Even in that situation, "RCEP X (number of countries) is better than RCEP 0," he added.