SINGAPORE - Commerce ministers of Asean and its key partners have agreed on a series of targets to ensure that talks on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) cross the finish line this year.
This comes as parties, more so than last year, understand the strategic significance of such an agreement and the importance of its timing, given the rising tide of protectionism globally.
Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said this as he updated the House on Monday (March 4) about the progress of the mega trade pact, involving Asean's 10 member states and six of its key partners, in response to Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC).
This follows a meeting the minister attended over the weekend in Cambodia that involved the 16 members of the RCEP bloc. The pact will cover issues including trade in goods and services, investment, economic and technical cooperation, as well as intellectual property, among other issues.
There was a good discussion in Cambodia overall, said Mr Chan, with all parties reaffirming their determination to end talks by 2019.
"In a world where we see the rise of protectionism, unilateral moves by various countries, trade protectionism and so forth, I think many in South-east Asia, in the rest of Asia, see the urgency to try to conclude this," he said.
This is not just for economic benefits but "because of the positive message we want to send to the rest of the world, of how we collectively believe in greater integration for the greater good of our people".
However, the move comes amid uncertainties such as elections in four countries involved in the RCEP talks: India, Indonesia, Thailand and Australia.
From now to the end of May, noted Mr Chan, these countries will be very involved in their domestic elections but ministers have directed their negotiators to focus on settling as many technical issues as possible in the first half of the year.
A subsequent meeting in China in August will be a critical milestone as this will be when political commitment is shown on whether all 16 countries want to have the deal concluded this year, he added.