MANILA - South-east Asia's economic ministers are set to endorse this week the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and call on other nations involved in the trade deal to settle persistent differences over tariffs and other conditions.
"We are all in agreement to have a significant progress in RCEP discussions," Philippine Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez told reporters on Wednesday (Sept 9).
He said that "99 per cent of all participants are already at the desired number or level of liberalisation needed".
Only one nation is holding out, he said. It is offering to liberalise just 80 per cent of its tariff lines, compared with the other countries' offers of at least 90 per cent.
The Asean economic minister will be attending a meeting here on Thursday (Sept 7).
The RCEP was conceived in 2012 to harmonise the agreements of the 10 members of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) with six of their trading partners: China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
If approved, the trade deal will cover nearly 3.5 billion people, making it the largest trade bloc in terms of population , as well as a third of the world's gross domestic product and total trade. It covers a broad range of topics, including trade in goods and services, investments, intellectual property and e-commerce.
Mr Lopez said he is hoping the RCEP can be approved this year.
"But we're not really set on 2017. We can finish it this year or next year. What's important is that we move forward, even if by inches, as long as we get to our objective," he said.
The 16 nations involved have agreed on only two out of 15 areas. These are the less contentious ones - small and medium-sized businesses and economic cooperation.
India and China are reluctant to open key industries, while Japan and Australia are pushing for freer trade.
The RCEP has become more prominent after the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, led by the United States under the previous Barack Obama administration, was scrapped by the current US president Donald Trump. Critics of the RCEP note that it does not have provisions for labour, human rights and environmental protection, unlike the TPP, which counts among its signatories Singapore as well as Japan.