MANILA - Singapore will do all it can to push negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) forward as chairman of Asean in 2018, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Tuesday (Nov 14).
Addressing leaders from 15 other nations in discussions on the mega free trade deal at the RCEP Summit here, he thanked Indonesia for its leadership on the pact, adding: "We appreciate the combined efforts of all participating countries; all have worked very hard to make progress."
The summit was the first sit-down meeting between leaders of all 16 countries in the trade deal since the launch of negotiations in November 2012.
Substantial work still needs to be done and the challenges are complex, said PM Lee in a frank assessment of the difficulties that lay ahead.
"Nevertheless, negotiations have taken longer than expected," he said, noting that members had missed three deadlines for conclusion of the pact.
The RCEP is a proposed free trade deal spearheaded by Asean and involving six of its key trading partners: Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.
This is the RCEP's fifth year of negotiations since its launch in 2012. The deal was to have been concluded in 2015, but this was pushed back to 2016 and then to this year.
Opening the summit, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte noted that the RCEP represented almost half the world's population and more than a third of global gross domestic product.
"It is not simply another trade agreement but a trade agreement that could provide the size and scale to unleash new growth potentials and write the new rules of the game of the international trade order," he said.
"But rewriting the global economic landscape requires us to urgently bring the negotiations to a close and to create deeper trade linkages that would demonstrate our commitment to free and open markets."
PM Lee, in his remarks, said there was a need to balance the sensitivities and political constraints of each RCEP party.
"We have to find common landing zones even though many RCEP Parties do not have FTAs with each other," he noted.
"We need renewed mandates to recalibrate the level of ambition to realistic levels."
PM Lee also urged parties to engage with one another in good faith in a frank and open manner. Creative solutions are needed, such as addressing sensitivities in smaller groups if necessary, he added.
In spite of these difficulties, PM Lee urged his fellow leaders to press on.
Making the case for the trade pact, he said that a high-quality and comprehensive RCEP will tangibly benefit businesses and people and "show the world that the region is confident in our economic future".
Commitment and collective effort are vital to bring the RCEP to conclusion, he added.