June 21, 2014 3:20 pm JST

16 Asia-Pacific nations begin 5th round of trade talks

SINGAPORE (Kyodo) -- Senior trade officials from 16 Asia-Pacific countries, including Japan, China and India but not the United States, began their fifth round of free trade talks Saturday in Singapore.

     Some 600 officials from countries involved in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, have gathered in the city-state for the talks to be held through next Friday.

     Smaller meetings will be held this weekend while the Trade Negotiating Committee meeting itself will begin Monday, revolving around seven working groups, namely trade in goods, trade in services, investment, competition policy, intellectual property rights, economic and technical cooperation, and dispute settlement.

     Officials said the target is to reach a deal by the end of next year. However, progress has been slow.

     "The target is end of 2015. That's very ambitious. There are still wide gaps between countries because development of the economies varies," said an Asian official. "It will be a challenge to close the gaps."

     Four rounds of RCEP talks have been held since members launched the negotiation based on a November 2012 agreement. The first round was held in Brunei in May 2013, followed by those in Australia, Malaysia and most recently China.

     The countries are pinning their hopes on the Singapore meeting to make enough progress to report to the annual meeting of economic ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Myanmar's capital Naypyitaw in August.

     The officials said this round will focus on the modality for liberalization of trade in goods, such as the timeframe to be allowed, and also the approach of liberalization for investment and services.

     The RCEP includes all 10 ASEAN members and their six regional partners -- Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.