BANGKOK -- Leaders of 16 Asia-Pacific countries will hold a special meeting next week after attempts by trade minister to make progress on forming the world's largest trading bloc failed on Saturday.
At a meeting in the Thai capital, the group agreed on the free movement of workers but remained at loggerheads over several crucial issues, including regulations regarding e-commerce, trade remedies and foreign investment.
The ministers tried to hammer out the details of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which would bring free trade to the 10 Association of Southeast Asian member countries along with Japan, China, India, South Korea, Australian and New Zealand. If formed, it would be the largest free trade alliance in the world, covering about a third of the total global gross domestic product.
Despite the lack of progress Saturday, the chairman of the meeting, Thai Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanawisit, was hopeful the deal would be hashed out soon.
"The 16 member countries still stand firmly on one single target set previously to conclude the RCEP negotiation by this year," Jurin said after the meeting.
So far, negotiators have agreed on 14 of the 20 issues to be agreed upon. Last month, officials agreed to 13 issues, including tariff cuts, customs procedures, trade facilitation and intellectual property rights.
The clock is ticking on ironing out the details of the pact. The RCEP talks were announced at the ASEAN Summit in 2012 and began in 2013. However, the impasse has left doubts as to whether a deal will ever be reached and led China to call for a different pact would include only itself, Japan, South Korea and the ASEAN nations, although that was rejected.
Thailand was eager to make tangible progress so that an agreement can be signed at the ASEAN Summit next month.
With several major issues remaining unfinished, the ministers agreed Saturday to hold a special meeting from Monday through Oct. 19 in Bangkok.
"The senior officials from 16 countries are expected to conclude all the remaining issues before the next RCEP ministerial meeting set on November 1 before the ASEAN summit meeting, which is set on November 4," said Auramon Supthaweethum, Thailand's chief trade negotiator.