MANILA • A mega trade deal that will cover nearly 3.5 billion people and account for a third of the world's gross domestic product is almost completed and could be signed next year, said Asean Secretary-General Le Luong Minh yesterday.
He said the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) deal "is in the final stage of negotiations".
"Hopefully, we can substantially conclude it, so that a full-fledged RCEP can be concluded under Singapore's chairmanship," he told The Straits Times in an interview.
Singapore takes over the rotating chairmanship of Asean next year.
Earlier in the day, Philippine Trade and Industry Secretary Ramon Lopez said good progress had been made in moving discussions on the RCEP forward.
"But there are still areas that need to be ironed out if we are to finally conclude the negotiations," he said.
Their comments come a day after 11 countries in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreed to go ahead without the United States.
Observers have seen the TPP as a rival to the Asean-centred RCEP, although seven of the TPP members are also in talks on the RCEP.
RCEP leaders will take stock of the deal at a meeting tomorrow.
Mr Minh acknowledged there are holdouts concerned over opening their markets, but "it's like in other multilateral negotiations".
"Very often, you can get a deal only at the last minute," he said.
The RCEP was conceived in 2012 to harmonise trade rules across the 10 members of Asean and six key trading partners: China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. If approved, the 16-nation free trade agreement will be the largest trade bloc in terms of population, with a third of the world's GDP and total trade.
In September, Asean economic ministers agreed on "key elements" they hope will accelerate RCEP talks. They agreed that nations that would sign up for the RCEP should commit to remove barriers on at least 90.3 per cent of their product lines over five to 10 years.
All 10 Asean members have already signed up on this, and anything less will be unacceptable to the bloc, Mr Lopez said then.
While the TPP would have accounted for 40 per cent of global GDP and 20 per cent of world trade, the election of US President Donald Trump last year doomed the deal. He had campaigned against the TPP, warning it would cost US jobs.
The 11 remaining countries agreed on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in Danang, Vietnam, to stick to the core elements of the TPP, but suspend some 20 provisions. The new pact will be called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the TPP, or CPTPP, and a deal seemed elusive well into the final hours of talks last week.