SINGAPORE: The latest round of negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in Singapore made “good progress”, though considerable work remains to reach the goal of “substantially concluding” the trade pact by the end of the year, said Singapore’s Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing on Saturday (Sep 1).
With talks being at the “most challenging stage”, he urged all 16 member countries to “shoulder the common responsibility” of pushing negotiations past the finish line – potentially by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit that will be hosted by Singapore in November.
“As you get closer to the milestone that you want, the last part is always the most critical because that will require the toughest trade-offs,” Mr Chan said at a press conference to wrap up the annual ASEAN Economic Ministers' (AEM) Meeting held at the Shangri-La Hotel.
Using an analogy from mountain climbing, he added: “As you go nearer to the summit, the climb can become steeper and more challenging so we need to buckle down.”
“Negotiations are now at a critical phase, and considerable work remains to be done in the next few months to bring us to a substantial conclusion.”
The latest RCEP negotiations – which involve the 10 ASEAN countries, together with China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand – took place as part of the four-day AEM meetings in Singapore.
Talks have been going on since 2013, with four out of 18 chapters concluded thus far. When inked, RCEP will form the world’s largest trading bloc, making up a third of global gross domestic product.
Progress on the proposed trade pact is closely watched amid escalating trade tensions, with several countries going for tit-for-tat measures against tariffs that have been imposed by the United States.
Mr Chan said the latest round of negotiations has made “good progress”, with most participating countries “demonstrating flexibility by accommodating each other’s needs where possible”.
This resulted in the narrowing of gaps and paved the way forward for negotiators to engage on key outstanding issues, he added.
Having a separate meeting for the RCEP ministers in Singapore have been “most useful”.
Mr Chan elaborated: “When the negotiators look at things in silos, it’s hard to break the deadlock but when the ministers sit down together and look at the package holistically, they are able to look at it from a political angle (and) see how they can sell the package to their domestic audience.”
He added that the ministers have also displayed openness about potential challenges that they might face domestically.
“Because we are frank with one another, it enables other ministers to try and come together to see how we can help each other … This makes for a better relationship and gives a greater chance for us to get things done collectively,” he told Channel NewsAsia during a separate interview with local media.
Moving forward, all member countries will have to secure the necessary political mandates domestically, while intensifying bilateral negotiations to close existing gaps.
Talks regarding the remaining chapters of the trade pact are also seeing progress, added Mr Chan.
When asked if trade tensions elsewhere have added urgency to the RCEP talks, he replied: “I think all the ministers are very aware and cognizant of the global economic and trade challenges. I’m sure this is on the back of their minds and will add to the energy that they will put into the RCEP process.”
Mr Chan added that ASEAN, together with its RCEP partners, remain believers of a rules-based multilateral system which continues to be “the best way” to overcome challenges, such as technological disruption.
The annual series of meetings, which started on Tuesday, saw ASEAN ministers inking agreements to push for greater integration of the region’s services sectors, as well as reduce administrative hassle and costs for businesses.
Apart from RCEP talks, the meetings also included separate consultations with the grouping’s key partners, such as United States, China, Australia, Russia and Canada.
On what these discussions and deals mean for Singapore, Mr Chan said having linkages with different countries will enable local businesses and workers to weather challenges in the global economy.
“We must make sure that we continue to build up our links with more countries … so that our businesses will not face a discontinuity even if there’s a disruption in one particular market.”
Citing the newly signed ASEAN agreements as examples, Mr Chan said the accord to deepen integration in the region’s services sector, for instance, will translate into better opportunities for local firms.
This will, in turn, help to create more job opportunities and better wages for workers here, he added.