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Trade

Singapore ratifies RCEP trade deal as members eye January launch

Thailand and China also quick to approve accord but more players needed

Ships off the coast of Singapore: The city-state ratified the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership on April 9.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- Singapore announced on Friday that it has ratified the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade agreement, a key step toward implementing the 15-member accord on Jan. 1 of next year.

Singapore's fast ratification "signals [a] strong commitment to strengthening our trade and economic linkages with our partners, for the benefit of our businesses and people," Trade Minister Chan Chun Sing said in a statement.

The pact -- to be Asia's biggest trade deal, covering about 30% of the world's gross domestic product and population -- was signed last November by the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.

With its rules on tariff elimination as well as cross-border investment, the agreement has been hailed as a boost for member economies aiming to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. It is also seen as a symbolic victory for free trade in Asia, pushing back against global protectionism.

"Businesses can expect to benefit from tariff elimination of about 92% on average, as well as streamlined rules of origin for greater flexibility to tap on preferential market access benefits," the Singaporean Ministry of Trade and Industry said.

But while proponents of the deal expect big benefits, ratification speed is a question mark, as some governments may take longer than others to debate the arrangement with their opponents. RCEP will only enter into force 60 days after at least six of the 10 ASEAN members and three of the five non-ASEAN states finish the ratification procedures.

Singapore's ministry said the city-state is the first "to complete the official ratification process," depositing the documentation with the ASEAN secretary-general. Besides Singapore, Thailand's legislature approved the deal in February, while China did so in March.

Japan's parliament started discussions about ratification this month. Some of the other participants are expected to move forward in the near future.

Fifteen countries participate in a virtual Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Summit in November 2020, before signing the trade accord.   © Reuters

Once it takes effect, RCEP would mark a significant breakthrough for China and Japan -- Asia's largest and second-largest economies -- by connecting them with a free trade agreement for the first time.

Some other members are also already linked by bilateral free trade deals, including one between ASEAN and China. RCEP would provide a framework for joining existing accords.

For Asia, RCEP is the second major multilateral trade deal following the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP -- the 11-member version of the TPP, forged after former President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out. Seven of the 15 RCEP members belong to the CPTPP as well.

Originally, India was also involved in the RCEP negotiations, but it pulled out due to fears that an influx of cheap goods would hurt its companies and farmers. When the 15 members signed, they left the door open for India to return at a later date.

In the ratification announcement on Friday, Singapore's Chan said, "We look forward to our fellow RCEP Participating Countries doing likewise, to expedite the entry into force of the agreement."

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