With the year-end target for Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations drawing near, its 16 participating countries pledged in Bangkok yesterday to keep working on ironing out fundamental issues.
In a joint statement issued yesterday, the economic ministers from Asean, India, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand said they "recognised that negotiations have reached a critical milestone as the deadline for the conclusion of negotiations draws near".
"Notwithstanding the remaining challenges in the negotiations, (RCEP participating countries) are working on addressing outstanding issues that are fundamental to conclude the agreement this year as mandated by the leaders."
The 16 countries in the proposed trade pact contribute a third of the world's economic output.
Proponents say RCEP will help brace the multilateral global order at a time when Beijing and Washington are locked in a bruising trade war that threatens the global economy.
This is especially since another mega trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, was undermined by the withdrawal of the United States in 2017.
RCEP talks have been taking place since 2013 but negotiations appeared to have slowed.
Number of countries in the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade pact. They contribute a third of the world's economic output.
A ministerial meeting in Beijing last month did not nudge the number of concluded chapters past the seven out of 18 reached last year.
One stumbling block has been posed by India, wary of a flood of Chinese goods that may hurt its agricultural sector.
It is reluctant to slash tariffs without the further concessions it is seeking, such as the free movement of professionals like accountants across the proposed bloc.
However, Thailand, which holds Asean's rotating chairmanship this year, is hopeful the deal will be concluded during its term.
The joint statement noted that "continuing uncertainties in trade and investment environment have dampened growth outlook across the world, with likely impact on businesses and jobs, adding to the urgency and imperative of concluding the RCEP".
While changes in the global trade environment may have affected the participating countries' individual negotiating positions, the ministers in the Bangkok meeting - which included Singapore Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing - "agreed that the (RCEP participating countries) should not lose the long-term vision of deepening and expanding the values chains in the RCEP".
"The ministers underscored that, successfully concluded, the RCEP will provide the much-needed stability and certainty to the market, which will in turn boost trade and investment in the region."
The ministers committed to give negotiators the necessary resources and mandate to seal negotiations, said the statement.