Negotiations on a 16-nation trade deal spanning much of Asia won’t be completed until February, Philippine Trade Minister Ramon Lopez said, damping expectations that an agreement would be announced on Monday.
“The leaders will have to have the final report from the ministers,” Lopez told reporters on Saturday in Bangkok, where leaders are gathering for a summit hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Negotiators then will get a further mandate “to conclude it and sign it next year,” he said, adding that it’s “nearing conclusion.”
Lopez said that one country he didn’t identify wanted to “have confirmation before they can totally agree” to the deal, known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The agreement, backed by China, would reduce tariffs for a third of the global economy in a win for free trade after President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and implemented a host of protectionist measures.
While Lopez didn’t name the country, Bloomberg News reported this week that India made last-minute demands after it earlier agreed to terms of a deal. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the Bangkok Post in an interview published Saturday that it wanted to see trade partners commit to greater service-industry access in a regional trade deal.
“It needs to be recognized that opening the vast Indian market must be matched by openings in some areas where our businesses can also benefit,” Modi said.
Lopez called RCEP a “bright spot” amid a protracted US-China trade war that’s roiled global markets. Trump is forgoing the Asean summit for the second straight year, and sending the lowest level US delegation since his predecessor Barack Obama stepped up regional engagement in 2011.
Asked if there was a chance that the one country would be left out of an agreement, Lopez said “anything is possible” — but that the group’s mindset was to include all nations.
The RCEP nations include the 10 Asean member states as well as China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. The “one country” Lopez didn’t name is working hard to assess the remaining issues, including those concerning market access, he said.
“We are just on the final few pairings and products,” Lopez said. “From now until February, all these details, the negotiations should take place to clean it up basically — clean up the remaining pending issues on market access.”ations in Bangkok.