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Economy

RCEP talks make little headway toward year-end conclusion

Ministers narrow market access differences but say 'further improvements' needed

Although RCEP negotiations began in 2013, the 16 Asia-Pacific countries involved became keener this year due to U.S. protectionism and expected collateral damage from the U.S.-China trade war.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- The 16 members of the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade pact on Saturday made some progress in the area of market access at a ministerial meeting in Singapore. But the ministers said further improvements are needed to reach a deal by the end of the year.

The RCEP encompasses the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. The proposed bloc accounts for about one-third of global gross domestic product and half the world's population.

During an August meeting in Singapore, negotiators adopted "a package of year-end deliverables," by which they mean a "substantial conclusion."

According to a joint statement released after Saturday's meeting, the market access gaps that were narrowed have to do with tariff barriers and foreign investment.

"I think there was big progress at today's meeting," said Hiroshige Seko, Japan's minister of economy, trade and industry, without giving details. "The discussion reached a final stage."

Seko was speaking at a news conference.

RCEP talks began in 2013, but the governments involved became keener on the negotiations this year, after President Donald Trump turned U.S. trade policy protectionist and as the U.S.-China tariff fight began to weigh on Asia-Pacific economies. Negotiators are trying to bridge gaps through 16-party and bilateral meetings.

"All 16 countries remain committed to the year-end substantial conclusion," Seko said, adding that Japan and Singapore are the keenest in this regard.

The 16 nations, however, must clear some big hurdles if they are to reach their end-of-the-year target. RCEP negotiations include other areas such as rules on financial services, e-commerce and the movement of people. The members apparently aim to agree on some of these areas to be included in the year-end deliverables.

According the joint statement, the ministers "emphasized the need for further improvements" regarding market access. Advanced economies seek a high level of trade liberalization, while emerging markets in the group are demanding protections for their fledgling industries.

The proposed pact is to have 18 chapters, but only four have been concluded. A Japanese government official told reporters on Saturday that no additional chapters were completed during the day's session.

Another ministerial meeting will convene later this month, in New Zealand, and the ministers are to meet one more time before a November summit in Singapore.

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