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International relations

China, Japan and ASEAN await India's nod to seal RCEP trade deal

Negotiators in last-minute effort after ministerial talks ended without breakthrough

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who holds the key to the world's largest trade deal, will attend several summits in Bangkok.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Fifteen Asia-Pacific countries, including China, Japan and the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, are waiting on India to approve a fundamental agreement on the world's largest trade deal, multiple sources revealed on Saturday.

Negotiators from the countries participating in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, held an informal meeting Saturday in a last-minute push toward a deal. The meeting took place on the sidelines of the ASEAN and East Asia summits in Bangkok.

An RCEP deal would include tariff cuts and intellectual property protections.

A minister from Southeast Asia told the Nikkei Asian Review, "We have already completed with 15 countries. Just one more country, wait for them to solve their problem."

The comment was echoed by Philippine Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez, who told reporters on Saturday without naming India, that "one country" was just getting "some consultations and confirmation on certain matters back home."

Another Southeast Asian negotiator told Nikkei that "If India compromises, an agreement can be reached."

A South Korean government source also indicated that India is making its 15 would-be partners wait.

If India comes around, the pact is expected to be announced at an RCEP Summit scheduled for Monday.

At a ministerial meeting held on Friday, negotiators failed to reach an agreement, but the delegations chose to keep the discussions going on the remaining issues before the RCEP summit on Monday.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday issued a statement upon his departure to Thailand to attend the RCEP and other summits. Referring to RCEP, the statement says, "We will consider all issues including whether India's concerns and interests in trade in goods, services, and investments are being fully accommodated, during this Summit."

A source close to India's trade delegation said that the delegation is waiting for Modi to make the call.

RCEP brings together the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, plus China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India.

These countries are home to 3.6 billion people, or nearly half the world's population, and account for around one-third of global gross domestic product.

ASEAN leaders originally proposed the idea of RCEP in 2012, and the talks began in 2013. Last year, it became clear that the biggest challenge was to persuade India, which wanted more safeguards due to its large trade deficit with China.

New Delhi's resistance reportedly irritated Beijing, which at one point proposed going ahead without India. China was eager to wrap up the deal to expand its access to Asia-Pacific markets.

For China, RCEP is also a tool to present itself as a flag-bearer of free trade in contrast to Trump's U.S., even though the Chinese government maintains many of its own protectionist policies.

Additional reporting by Cliff Venzon, Takashi Nakano, Bobby Nuguroho, Kim Jaewon and Masayuki Yuda.

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