SINGAPORE: Talks between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its regional trade partners are gaining urgency, as they strive to conclude a far-reaching, 16-member trade pact.
Singapore - the ASEAN chair for 2018 - has said it hopes to conclude negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) by the end of the year, as talks got underway on Thursday (Aug 30), day two of the 50th ASEAN Economic Ministers’ Meeting (AEM).
"I'm aware that we're scheduled to discuss the RCEP until late tonight, and if we can't agree, we will lock the room and throw out the key," jested Singapore's Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, who is the AEM chairman.
Speaking to media on the sidelines of the AEM, Indonesian Trade Minister Enggartiasto Lukita said issues to be ironed out include "trade in goods, market access, and services".
When concluded, RCEP would be the world's largest trading bloc, accounting for a third of global GDP.
Prior to the current talks, RCEP has gone through 23 rounds of negotiations.
"I could sense the determination of everyone around the table that this is an opportunity that we need to seize, because of the current challenges we are facing in the global economy and the global trading environment," said Mr Chan.
"We are all very realistic that next year, various countries will have various domestic preoccupations and we really need to build on the momentum and try to get the task substantially done by the end of this year."
Thailand takes over from Singapore as ASEAN chair next year, and is aiming to deliver on the initial draft wording then.
“We all need to put all the important issues and core issues in the package and come to an agreement on those issues. If that approach is successful at this meeting, that means that next year when Thailand take the chairmanship, it will be the year that we put everything in language," said Thai Deputy Commerce Minister Chutima Bunyapraphasara.
Besides the 10 member states of ASEAN, RCEP includes economic heavyweights like China, Japan, and Korea.
It is tipped to be key, at a time when trade conflicts appear to be gathering pace.
"RCEP will promote the establishment of a regional value chain and lay the groundwork for ASEAN Plus Three to develop into a substantial economic community, as it encompasses both Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia," said South Korean Trade, Industry and Energy Minister Kim Hyung-Chong.
"It'll also prevent the currently escalating trade war from spreading further and contribute to the promotion of free and open trade."
Mr Chan also noted that the substantial conclusion of RCEP by end-2018 will reaffirm the region's continued support for free trade against the backdrop of rising protectionist sentiments.
"This will also send a positive signal to our business stakeholders, and reassure them that the RCEP region remains committed to putting in place a business-friendly regional environment," he said.
Besides RCEP, economic ministers have also been discussing other areas of concern, such as on lowering trade barriers and promoting regional connectivity.
A key topic is harmonising trade and customs procedures across ASEAN countries, as each of the 10 countries have different regulatory systems and are at different levels of development.
The AEM will end on Saturday, with meetings between ASEAN and other non-RCEP trading partners, including the US, Canada, and Russia.