NEW DELHI - The leaders of Asean and India have expressed their intention to conclude the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) by this year - and they will have to work to make it happen, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in Friday (Jan 26).
He added that all of the Asean leaders had made the point on early conclusion "forcefully", while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said India would "exert efforts" to make it happen.
But whether the trade deal can conclude this year will depend on countries at the negotiating table closing the gaps in perspectives and expectations among them, he told the Singapore media as he wrapped up a six-day visit of Sri Lanka and India.
"I cannot say for sure that it will happen, but I heard the leaders speaking yesterday, and all of them expressed the right sentiments," he said.
The RCEP is a free trade deal that brings together Asean, India, China, Japan, Australia, South Korea and New Zealand. It will cover almost half the world's population if successful.
Mr Lee, who co-chaired Wednesday's Asean-India commemorative summit - as Singapore chairs Asean this year - pushed hard for a commitment to seal the regional trade pact by 2018.
One argument he made to his counterparts was that the deal should be seen as more than just an economic one.
"When you make a trade agreement like this, it's very seldom only about economics or trade. There's always another aspect to it - of bilateral cooperation, of friendship, of strategic calculation," he said.
As Asean chair, Singapore will facilitate the deal "as an honest-broker coordinator", he added.
"We will bring Asean together and try and work out an arrangement and agreements which will command consensus," he said.
But Mr Lee added that the countries will have their work cut out, as it means "you have to work through domestic interest, you have to work through your trade bureaucracies and your ministries and your other agencies".
Mr Lee along with other Asean leaders attended India's Republic Day Parade on Friday as chief guests of the country.
This is the first time India has invited more than one foreign leader to be chief guest, a gesture Asean is deeply honoured by, Mr Lee said.
During the trip, Mr Lee also pushed for an Asean-India Air Transport Agreement, which will expand air links between cities in Asean and India.
Responding to this at a bilateral meeting with Mr Lee, Mr Modi had invited Singapore Airlines to fly to smaller cities in India's north-west, such as Guwahati in the state of Assam.
Asked if Singapore will take up the offer, Mr Lee said: "The (Singapore) carriers have to evaluate it... The business may or may not yet be there yet, so the business case has to be assessed carefully."
With air traffic between India and Asean growing, he said, the "practical thing to do is to follow... the trend where the traffic is, and then build up as you go along, and at the same time, explore some new destinations".
While Asean-India flights have increased, demand for flights has grown faster, he added. "So purely from a connectivity and business point of view, there is a strong case for having more flights."
Mr Lee was also asked to assess the trip to India - whether he saw substantive progress made.
He said: "Progress in Asean is never overnight and in quantum leaps. It's always gradual and incremental. Over time we hope that individual modest steps add up to something significant.
"This trip would be in that nature - another step forward, valuable and positive. And we hope we will build on it over time."