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ASEAN economic ministers move to accelerate trade talks

Discussions to focus on RCEP as states struggle to find common ground

MANILA -- Southeast Asian economic ministers on Thursday will kick off a series of dialogues here in the Philippine capital. A big focus is expected to be the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership deal, now unlikely to be concluded this year as originally planned. 

From Thursday to Monday, trade ministers from the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations will discuss free trade and investments as well as the broader ASEAN Economic Community Blueprint 2025, which spells out the grouping's economic goals. ASEAN officially became a single economic bloc in 2015, but members' varying levels of development have hampered efforts toward greater integration.

Harmonized customs procedures are still being worked out. And latecomers to the bloc -- Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar -- are still in the process of eliminating tariffs on goods. On Wednesday, Philippine Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez, who will chair the meetings, said he will urge his ASEAN counterparts to commit to reducing more non-tariff barriers, a thorny issue in the region.

A dedicated meeting on RCEP is set for Sunday. Ministers from ASEAN trading partners Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea will join.

The 16 RCEP member states had set 2017 as the target year for concluding negotiations, but on Tuesday Lopez said an agreement this year is unlikely.

RCEP countries are stuck on the percentage of goods they are willing to liberalize. Some countries are prepared to eliminate tariffs on 92% of trade in goods; others can only offer over 70%, Ceferino Rodolfo, the Philippines' deputy trade secretary, said last week.

"Among [us] ASEAN members, we are OK," Lopez said. "The other FTA partners are the ones that are not."

Philippine Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez   © Reuters

Lopez declined to be more specific.

The China-backed RCEP has become more imperative for countries in the region after U.S. President Donald Trump junked the Trans-Pacific Partnership upon assuming office early this year. Many RCEP members -- such as Australia, Japan and Singapore -- are also parties to the TPP, which excludes China. Indonesia, which was eyeing the TPP, lost interest after the U.S. backed out.

During the RCEP meeting, Lopez said, ministers will discuss how to accelerate negotiations. "We might agree on 16 minus 1," he said, referring to a mechanism that would not require a consensus to reach an agreement.

The talks in Manila will be the last RCEP ministerial discussions this year. Next month, RCEP negotiators will hold their final meetings of the year, in South Korea.

Agreements have been reached on only two of 15 areas. "Even if [we do it] inch by inch," Lopez said, "what's important is we finish it."

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