Regional free trade pact unlikely to be sealed at Asean Summit

RCEP more likely to be signed in February next year, says Thai official

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with Indian PM Narendra Modi at the 16th Asean-India Summit, held as part of the 35th Asean Summit in Nonthaburi province, Thailand, yesterday. The delay in signing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with Indian PM Narendra Modi at the 16th Asean-India Summit, held as part of the 35th Asean Summit in Nonthaburi province, Thailand, yesterday. The delay in signing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) comes amid growing opposition to the deal in India.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

It is unlikely that the world's largest free trade pact can be concluded at the ongoing Asean Summit in Thailand, with a Thai official saying that the deal will more likely be signed in February next year.

"We don't have a conclusion yet. Once there is one, it would be announced," Thai government spokesman Narumon Pinyosinwat said yesterday.

"Commerce ministers are still discussing outstanding issues. The signing is expected around February next year," she was reported as saying by Reuters.

It was also telling that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made no mention of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in his opening statement at the Asean-India Summit yesterday, despite speaking at length about increasing partnerships between India and Asean.

He had called for more collaboration with Asean in areas "of mutual interest" such as agriculture, science, information and communications technology, and engineering.

India has been identified as the last holdout in the proposed trading bloc before Asean and regional leaders are given a report on the agreement today.

If concluded in its proposed form, RCEP will cover the 10 Asean nations, China, India, South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand - which together contribute a third of the world's gross domestic product.

Mr Modi had told the Bangkok Post he is committed to RCEP talks but added that "opening the vast Indian market must be matched by openings in some areas where our businesses can also benefit".

While he did not touch on the RCEP in his summit address, Mr Modi did speak about India's economic partnerships with Asean.

 
 
 
 

He hailed Asean's decision to review the Asean-India Trade in Goods Agreement, signed in 2010. The review will look at simplifying the agreement and making it more user-friendly to facilitate trade.

He also lauded the strong relationship that India has with Asean. "Asean is at the very core of our Act East Policy, and will always be so. An integrated, cohesive and economically developing Asean serves India's core interests," he added.

The delay in signing the agreement comes amid growing opposition to the deal in India. On Saturday, Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi said that any decision by the government to sign the RCEP agreement will bring "untold hardship" to farmers, shopkeepers, and small and medium-sized enterprises.

"As if the government's economic decisions have not damaged the economy enough, it is now ready to deal a body blow to it by signing the RCEP," she added, reflecting the country's fear that cutting tariffs on dairy and other products will open the doors for a greater influx of Chinese goods as well as agricultural imports from RCEP countries.

The Congress Party is organising protests in all districts of India from tomorrow to Nov 15, along with a rally in Delhi next month, to highlight concerns such as the RCEP, economic slowdown, unemployment and the agrarian crisis.

The Communist Party of India also said on Saturday that joining the RCEP will harm the manufacturing and agriculture sectors, and widen the account deficit.

Mr Modi will meet leaders from other RCEP member states today at the third RCEP Summit, which is being held in conjunction with the 35th Asean Summit.

Separately, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has pledged that China will stay firmly committed to supporting Asean centrality in East Asian cooperation.

At the Asean-China Summit yesterday, he also highlighted progress made in drawing up a code of conduct (COC) for the South China Sea.

"We stand ready to work with Asean countries, building on the existing foundation and basis to strive for new progress in the COC, according to the three-year timeframe, so as to maintain and uphold long-term peace in the South China Sea," Mr Li said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 04, 2019, with the headline 'Regional free trade pact unlikely to be sealed at Asean Summit'. Subscribe