TOKYO (THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Even greater efforts should be made to create a solid framework for free trade.
A ministerial meeting for negotiations over the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which covers East Asia, has decided to expedite RCEP talks.
A joint statement adopted by participating ministers and others emphasised the need to conclude the talks at an early date, saying they will seek to "expeditiously bring negotiations to a mutually beneficial and fair conclusion."
They seek to reach a broad agreement by the end of the year.
If the RCEP accord takes effect, it is expected to activate the flow of goods and money, thereby boosting the area's growth potential.
RCEP consists of 16 participating nations, including Japan, China, South Korea and India.
Their population accounts for nearly half of the world population, and their gross domestic product is as large as about 30 per cent of the total.
It is greatly significant to build a huge free economic bloc in the rapidly growing Asian area.
It is a welcome move that the RCEP countries have moved into step with each other in seeking to reach an agreement within the year.
The United States is growing more and more unyielding in its diplomatic approach to international trade, as shown by its coercive actions of threatening other nations with punitive tariffs and demanding they open their markets.
RCEP is also expected to serve as a defence against the protectionist policies of the United States.
The problem is that there still are vast gaps in the opinions of the participating countries.
They remain divided over such issues as how strictly they should tighten rules on the percentage of tariffs subject to elimination and on the protection of intellectual property rights.
These gaps in opinion were not bridged in the latest ministerial conference, with Japan and Australia seeking to achieve a high-level agreement, and China and India hoping to place priority on protecting their domestic industries.
There are great differences in the extent to which each RCEP member nation has achieved economic growth.
It is inevitable to give consideration to some developing countries, for example, in the form of a grace period set for the implementation of agreed-upon items.
Nevertheless, preferential treatment cannot be given even to China and India, both large economies. It is necessary to avoid an agreement whose level has been lowered just so it can be concluded in a hurry, and a move that would reduce the advantages of reaching such an accord.
No effort should be spared to conduct negotiations in a manner that will bring the level of a RCEP agreement as close as possible to that of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact.
There are indications that China's stance has become flexible, compared with its earlier attitude. This change seems to reflect the fact that its trade friction with the United States has become even more intense.
Efforts should be made to accurately grasp the growing momentum for concluding the RCEP talks at an early date.
Close to half of Japan's trade is conducted with the RCEP countries. The benefits to be gained by Japan through the effectuation of the accord will be particularly great.
After the U.S. withdrawal from the TPP pact, Japan took the initiative in negotiations over the accord.
By utilising this experience, our nation should also exercise leadership in the RCEP talks.
RCEP holds that Asian countries will increase cooperation under fair rules and mutually enjoy the benefits of free trade. Japan should tenaciously continue to expound this basic RCEP principle.
The Yomiuri Shimbun is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media entities.