Asia-Pacific countries poised to start free trade talks


BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN: Sixteen Asia-Pacific countries are set to start talks next month on a free trade zone that would cover over half the world’s population, according to a document obtained by AFP yesterday.

The start of negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) are planned despite deep rifts among potential members, including China, Japan and Southeast Asian nations, over rival territorial claims.

Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), who will meet in Brunei today and tomorrow, are expected to focus on kickstarting the talks after launching the process last year at a regional summit in Phnom Penh.

The leaders will note that ‘the negotiations will commence in May’ in the Brunei capital of Bandar Seri Begawan, according to a draft of the chairman’s end-of-meeting statement obtained by AFP.

“We looked forward to the broadening and deepening of existing (free trade agreements) and envisioned the RCEP to be a platform for future trade and investment integration in Asia and the rest of the world,” the draft stated, which was prepared by senior officials and could be changed.

RCEP covers Asean’s 10 member countries – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – as well as Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.

It aims to tie together Asean’s bilateral free trade agreements with each trading partner, but excludes the United States which is leading talks for a rival trade pact called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The TPP currently involves 12 countries – Australia, Brunei, Chile, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the US and Vietnam.

“The RCEP provides an important platform for building trade liberalisation within the Asia-Pacific, which is the world’s fastest growing region,”, Rajiv Biswas, chief regional economist at IHS Global Insight, told AFP.

“The initiative is very important as it includes the three major drivers of emerging markets growth – China, India and Asean.”

Potential members have said previously they are keen to make progress towards an RCEP, despite being engaged in diplomatic rows over various rival territorial claims in the region.

China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia have competing claims to parts of the South China Sea, and tensions have escalated in recent years amid complaints of increased Chinese aggression.

Meanwhile, China and Japan are locked in an even more tense dispute over islands in the East China Sea.

In another territorial row, relations between Tokyo and Seoul have been strained by a dispute over a Seoul-controlled chain of islets in the Sea of Japan (East Sea).