Southeast Asian leaders yesterday met in Thailand eyeing a breakthrough in talks over the world’s largest trade deal to help throw off the torpor which has gripped the global economy since the start of the US-China tariff war.
The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) opened their annual summit in Bangkok hoping to secure a China-backed free trade pact knitting together half of the world’s population and around 40 percent of its commerce.
The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is a deal spanning India to New Zealand that has been wrangled over for several years.
It is now seen as an urgent counterpoint to US protectionism, but a trade delegate from the Philippines said a deal was unlikely until 2020.
Washington’s trade rumble with Beijing has weighed on markets, with the IMF warning the spat could cut global growth to the lowest pace in more than a decade.
Philippines’ trade secretary Ramon Lopez said he hoped to have a “very positive report (on RCEP) come Monday” when the summit ends.
But the treaty’s signing would happen “within next year”, Lopez added, and members will meet in February to sort out “pending issues on market access”.
India, whose Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also in Thailand, is the greatest obstacle to RCEP in its current form. New Delhi fears opening key industries such as metals, textiles and dairy to cheaper Chinese importers.
Indian intransigence has cast the deal -- looping in the 10 Southeast Asian economies along with Japan, India, China, New Zealand and Australia -- into doubt.
Chinese premier Li Keqiang will attend the three-day meet, where simmering tensions in the South China Sea will also lead the agenda.
China supports RCEP, a deal seen as a way for Beijing to assert its trade dominance in its Asian backyard after the US pullout of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in 2017.