China eyes early conclusion of regional free trade area deal amid escalating tariff war with US

 China's Ambassador to Asean Huang Xilian (left), Asean Secretary General Lim Jock Hoi (centre) and Singapore Permanent Representative to Asean Tan Hung Seng (right) observe pictures displayed during a photo exhibition titled "Living in Harmony" to c
China's Ambassador to Asean Huang Xilian (left), Asean Secretary General Lim Jock Hoi (centre) and Singapore Permanent Representative to Asean Tan Hung Seng (right) observe pictures displayed during a photo exhibition titled "Living in Harmony" to commemorate the 15th anniversary of Asean-China strategic partnership on July 12, 2018 at the Asean Secretariat in Jakarta.ST PHOTO: LINDA YULISMAN

JAKARTA - China hopes to conclude talks on the Asean-led 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) soon amid an escalating trade spat with the United States.

Chinese Ambassador to Asean Huang Xilian said on Thursday (July 12) that Beijing notes the urgency of the deal to maintain a rules-based trading system amid a surge in protectionism in global trade.

Both parties consider the deal "the best way" to safeguard multilateralism, Mr Huang told journalists in an interview after an event to mark the 15th anniversary of the Asean-China Strategic Partnership.

"We work together with Asean and other members to conclude RCEP at an early date and to work together to safeguard the multilateral trading system," he added.

Negotiations for the RCEP were launched in 2012 between 10 members of Asean and its six major trading partners - Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea - with the aim of creating an integrated market of more than three billion people.

The Asian Development Bank has estimated that the agreement will increase gross domestic product in the region by around US$644 billion (S$876.9 billion) by 2025 through freer movements of goods, services, investment and labour.

Mr Huang noted that the escalating trade war between Beijing and Washington will have repercussions in Asean countries although he did not elaborate.

 
 
 

Last week, the US applied 25 per cent tariffs on US$34 billion of Chinese goods, and China immediately responded by imposing levies on US$34 billion of American items.

Both countries are planning to apply duties on another US$16 billion in goods that would affect $50 billion worth of shipments in total.

As the US is preparing for another round of tariff hikes, China will certainly move forward with "necessary counter-measures", Mr Huang said, adding that they will be announced soon.

"We have to adapt to the trend of protectionism, unilateralism. If protectionism is appeased, it will lead to even greater disaster in the future," he added.

China's exports have grown significantly following its entry into the World Trade Organisation in 2001, allowing it to become the world's second-biggest economy after the US. But it has faced mounting accusations from its trading partners, including the US, that it has adopted unfair trade practices.

Asean Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi told the anniversary event that the relationship between the bloc and China is among "the most substantive and dynamic partnerships" in the region.

He added that both parties will take advantage of the upgraded Asean-China Free Trade Area to achieve their goals of posting US$1 trillion in two-way trade and US$150 billion in two-way investment by 2020, he added.

"We are also committed to working together to make substantive progress in the negotiation for a quality Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership this year to boost regional trade and growth."

Trade between Asean and China hit an all-time high of US$514.8 billion last year, up 13.8 per cent year on year, according to China's Ministry of Commerce as quoted by Xinhua.

China's exports to the South-east Asian grouping rose by 9 per cent year on year to US$279.1 billion in the past year, while its imports from Asean climbed by 20 per cent to US$235.7 billion.

Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand were China's largest trading partners in the region last year.

China spent US$9.2 billion in the region in 2016, according to the Asean Secretariat.