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Economy

RCEP deal unlikely this year: South Korean official

Participants snagged over how much to open their markets in trade pact

South Korean Trade Minister Kim Hyun-chong speaks at the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership meeting in Incheon, South Korea on Oct. 24. (Courtesy of South Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy)

INCHEON, South Korea -- An agreement to create a free trade zone among 16 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including China, Japan, India and South Korea, is not expected before the end of the year, said a South Korean representative in charge of the negotiations on Friday.

Participants, mostly senior bureaucrats, are struggling to reach a consensus over how much to open their markets. "It is not likely that we will reach an agreement on the deal within this year," said a senior official who asked not to be named. "We are trying to narrow differences, but the process is not easy. In particular, it is hard to agree on the level of openness in each market."

About 800 representatives from the prospective members of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, have been holding their 20th round of meetings in the western port city since Tuesday. The talks will conclude on Saturday. The participants are the four largest economies in Asia, along with 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, plus Australia and New Zealand.

The South Korean official said that Japan, Australia and New Zealand are willing to open their markets widely, while India is reluctant to do so because its relatively closed economy would have trouble adjusting.

The negotiations are taking place ahead of the RCEP Summit to be held in Manila in November. The meeting is drawing more attention this year because 2017 is the 50th anniversary of the founding of ASEAN, whose members are crucial to RCEP. The free trade talks began in 2012.

South Korea's trade ministry says RCEP will have a great impact on the global economy because it is the only large new free trade agreement in prospect at the moment. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is not in force and has been dormant since President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal following his election on a protectionist campaign platform.

If RCEP is ratified, it will form a huge economic bloc that accounts for half of the world's population and one-third of the global economy, the ministry said. It is even more significant because it includes big emerging markets, such as ASEAN and India, which have much potential for growth.

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