SINGAPORE -- Leaders of 16 countries in the Asia-Pacific area on Wednesday reaffirmed their commitment to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership after they failed to conclude the deal earlier this week.
"We welcomed the substantial progress made in RCEP negotiations in 2018," the leaders said in a joint statement.
According to the joint statement, the member countries have closed seven of 18 chapters of the trade pact, up from five chapters before this week's meetings. Newly closed chapters are sanitary measures and rules on industrial standards. But sensitive chapters including e-commerce rules and the lowering of tariffs are still up for negotiation.
The leaders stated that the countries aim for conclusion of the deal by the end of 2019.
When concluded and ratified, RCEP will form a huge framework for economic cooperation in Asia that will encompass China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand and the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The 16 countries together account for about 50% of the global population and roughly 30% of the world's gross domestic product.
Under the pact, members will gain access to new export markets, draw more cross-border investment and encourage international movement of labor. Having a common set of rules could also make the region more attractive to multinational corporations.
Progress on the negotiations had been slow since they began in 2013, due to wide differences among the members in their levels of economic development and trading interests. But as U.S. President Donald Trump's protectionist policies take hold, Asian nations have fresh incentive to focus on promoting free trade.
"The task to conclude the RCEP negotiations is becoming more urgent and significant given the current headwinds faced by the global economy," according to the joint statement.