PHNOM PENH : Leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and their six regional free-trade partners officially kicked off negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) yesterday.
The meeting between the regional grouping and the leaders of Australia, China, India, South Korea, Japan and New Zealand underscored the 21st Asean Summit and Related Summits in Cambodia.
The RCEP was first discussed at the 19th Asean Summit in November last year, when leaders of the 10 Asean member states adopted the framework for the RCEP, which sets out the general principles for broadening and deepening Asean's engagement with its free trade agreement partners.
Yesterday's milestone signalled the determination and commitment of Asean to lead the way in assembling the emerging regional economic architecture, but came amid a visit to Southeast Asia by US President Barack Obama who has been pushing for progress on his own US-led free trade negotiations known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
The RCEP would be the largest regional trading arrangement in the world to date.
The potential free trade agreements between Asean and China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand could eventually lead to the creation of an integrated market that spans 16 countries with a combined market population of more than 3 billion people and a combined GDP of about US$19.78 trillion based on 2011 figures.
With the region accounting for more than half of the global market and about a third of the global economic output, there is no doubt that a successful RCEP would significantly boost global trade and investment, said Surin Pitsuwan, the secretary-general of Asean.
The beginning of negotiations in Phnom Penh comes at a time when economic recovery efforts continue to be seriously challenged by the volatile global financial and economic situation.
The RCEP is a strategy aimed at maintaining regional growth by ensuring that markets of the participating countries remain open and competitive.
Leaders also endorsed the RCEP's Guiding Principles and Objectives for Negotiating adopted by their Economic Ministers in Siem Reap in August this year. Based on these guiding principles, the RCEP would allow the region's other economic partners to eventually draw into the agreement.
The RCEP is also expected to include economic and technical cooperation elements that would allow all parties, regardless of their level of development, to maximise the opportunities made available by deeper and broader economic engagements.
Meanwhile, the United States called a meeting of members of the TPP on the sidelines of the Asean-organised summit yesterday in an apparent effort to accelerate its own free-trade talks.
Leaders of Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Australia and New Zealand joined yesterday's meeting chaired by Mr Obama, who was in Cambodia for the East Asia Summit.
The meeting was called just before the 10-nation Asean bloc and leaders of China, Japan, South Korean, India, Australia and New Zealand met to discuss the RCEP agreement.
Asean sources said Mr Obama explored ways forward to accelerate the TPP process.
Mr Obama has previously said he hoped substantive elements of the TPP would be in place within this year.
Mr Obama's move to hold TPP talks on the sidelines in Phnom Penh shows his desire to push TPP negotiations ahead, Malaysia's International Trade and Industry Minister Mustapa Mohamed told his country's The Star newspaper.
The special meeting was requested by the White House before Mr Obama's re-election.
The 15th round of TPP negotiations will be held in New Zealand from Dec 3 to Dec 12.
Thailand has announced its decision to join the TPP talks amid criticism of the deal, but trade officials say negotiations among the 11 partners are still complex and require a lot of work.
Supachai Panitchpakdi, the head of the UN Conference on Trade and Development, said Asean and Thailand should focus on the RCEP instead of the TPP. "If Thailand jumps into the TPP, we will not be able to run the universal health scheme, for example," he said. "Let's deal with deals under the WTO or the RCEP first."
About the author
- Writer: Achara Ashayagachat
Position: Senior Reporter