Asian nations may now see the 16-nation trade bloc completed next year.
Chinese and Australian officials are now looking at 2019 to complete a 16-nation trade bloc, and with this the hopes of Asian nations to see the pact effected this year now seem to be dim.
Known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the trade deal, once effected, would cover almost half the world’s population. Singapore had pushed for a conclusion to the pact this year. Notably, Singapore is chairing the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations this year.
Media reports quoted Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham who was speaking to reporters Tuesday in Singapore as saying, “It’ll take a little bit longer to ensure that we get the type of substantial, meaningful, commercially meaningful market access decisions that Australia expects in a trade agreement.” This despite ministers from RCEP nations meeting till late on Monday night and making substantial progress, he said.
On Tuesday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang too spoke in a similar vein in Singapore. He hoped the talks would be completed next year, he said. “With the headwind of trade protectionism, free trade is facing some difficulties,” Li was quoted in the media.
It may be noted here that China has been pushing to diversify its export markets as its trade war with US escalates bringing about an added urgency to the pact.
Experts see RCEP as being a rival to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is a vast regional pact that was once led by the US. Trump withdrew from it early on. The RCEP pact along with China’s Belt and Road Initiative is key to China’s geopolitical supremacy and is hence being aggressively pushed by it.
What the deferment of the decision on trade bloc signals is the unease in the region over becoming too economically dependent on China. In his speech to an ASEAN business and investment conference on Tuesday, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad seemed to echo these sentiments when he said the bloc must not accept trade and investment measures that may be unfair to member countries.