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International relations

RCEP trade deal can take effect without India, Thailand confirms

China, Japan, ASEAN and others to write up treaty for ratification by June

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, left, with Indian counterpart Narendra Modi. It is unclear whether India will return to the RCEP talks.   © AP

BANGKOK -- A historic Asia-Pacific trade pact may come into force without one of the biggest participants -- a hesitant India -- a top Thai official indicated on Friday.

"The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership can take effect after at least six countries from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and four other participating nations ratify it," said Auramon Supthaweethum, director-general of the Department of Trade Negotiations in Thailand's Ministry of Commerce.

She said she expects RCEP to launch in 2021.

Sixteen nations -- the 10 ASEAN states plus China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India -- had been aiming to conclude the pact at an RCEP Summit held this past Monday.

India, however, put up a last-minute fight for safeguards, in view of its large trade deficits with other members -- especially China. New Delhi's resistance stalled the process, but Auramon confirmed there is still a way forward with or without India.

The Indian government has sent mixed signals since the contentious summit, hinting it intends to completely drop out but also suggesting it is open to further negotiations. The Thai director-general emphasized that India is still an RCEP member, but also said "RCEP members do not have a timeline to resume talks with India."

The 15 other nations, having concluded talks on all 20 chapters of the agreement during the summit period, have decided to go ahead and introduce legislation toward ratification. This process is expected to take until next June, according to Auramon.

The participants plan to review the RCEP agreement every five years, she revealed.

Even without India, Auramon said RCEP would still be the largest trade pact in history.

But the new bloc would be much smaller than envisioned, covering 2.2 billion people rather than 3.6 billion. Its gross domestic product, which would have accounted for about one-third of global GDP, would be down to 29% of the worldwide figure.

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