NONTHABURI (Thailand) • Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said that even though India is not on board the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the fact that the remaining 15 countries have managed to agree on it was a great achievement.
"It's a pity that India is not yet on board. We hope one day it will come on board," he said. "But nevertheless, this is a very major step forward for the RCEP. There was tremendous progress for which we have to thank the negotiators from all of the countries."
Speaking to reporters at the end of the 35th Asean Summit, he said there were no hard feelings towards India for being the sole holdout to the Asean-led deal.
"We understand India's position," he said. "(Indian Prime Minister Narendra) Modi has expressed it in forthright terms. And there's no anxiety or rancour.
"We fully understand and appreciate India's point of view. They have made that decision. We respect that decision."
PM Lee said Mr Modi had fundamental concerns from India's point of view that the RCEP did not achieve his objectives. "I think it will be quite some time before those issues can be overcome."
However, PM Lee said he is hopeful India could still be part of the RCEP when it is time to sign the pact next year. But if India does not, it will be up to RCEP members to decide how to move forward. He said that whatever happens, the aim is to have the number of countries in the RCEP be "as big as possible".
In a Facebook post last night, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing shared that most of the bilateral country-pairings have completed market access negotiations for the RCEP while the remaining few pairs will do so in the next couple of months.
"India has shared frankly with us their challenges and aspirations," he said. "All RCEP participating countries will work together to resolve these outstanding issues in a mutually satisfactory way."
Earlier in the day, PM Lee separately met Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
With Mr Morrison, he reaffirmed the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between the two countries, and agreed to strengthen collaboration in new and emerging areas that will bring tangible benefits to their people and businesses. They welcomed the launch of negotiations on a Singapore-Australia Digital Economy Agreement (DEA) last month and agreed to work towards completing the negotiations by the first quarter of next year.
The two leaders also reaffirmed their commitment to work towards upgrading the Memorandum of Understanding on Military Training and Training Area Development, which allows the Singapore Armed Forces to conduct training in Australia, to a treaty as soon as possible.
In his meeting with Mr Abe, PM Lee agreed to lift restrictions on food items from Fukushima, where a nuclear reactor meltdown occurred in 2011. He said the decision took into account the safeguards that Japan has implemented and is subject to pre-export testing of the food. Both leaders also agreed on the importance of the rules-based multilateral trading system, and that Singapore and Japan should continue to work together on the early conclusion of the RCEP.