RCEP: cautious steps in the right direction

Last week’s ministerial meeting for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) proved once again that trade negotiations are easier said than done. 

Although the “substantial conclusion” of the RCEP had been identified as a priority deliverable for ASEAN’s 50th anniversary in 2017, progress will fall short of that goal by some distance.  Clearly the RCEP negotiations are going to continue into 2018.  For example new working groups on Government Procurement and Trade Remedies have only just commenced discussions and will require time to reach an agreement.

Economic ministers from the 16 RCEP nations met in Pasay City, Philippines on 10th September for their fifth ministerial meeting since the negotiations began in 2013.  They urged their negotiators to make the “utmost effort to achieve significant outcomes of the RCEP by end of 2017 to bring [the] negotiation closer to its successful conclusion”.

RCEP negotiators have agreed on a set of “key elements for significant outcomes by end of 2017” and will be focussed on achieving them so they can be reported to RCEP Leaders in November.  The 20th negotiating round, scheduled to take place in October in South Korea, will be critical, following on from the ministerial meeting and preparing the way for the RCEP Leaders meeting.  It will be an important opportunity for the business community to remind negotiators of their expectations for a genuinely open and trade facilitating agreement.

The stakes are high.  The RCEP region covers more than 3.5 billion people, or half the world’s population, and 30% of global gross domestic product and trade.  Thus the RCEP deal has the potential to be a much needed engine for global growth IF member countries give their negotiators the mandate to deliver the comprehensive and ambitious agreement envisaged by RCEP Leaders at the beginning.   Time will tell.

 This post was prepared by Fiona Cooper, Associate Director of the New Zealand International Business Forum. 

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