Southeast Asian leaders will race to get a sprawling China-backed trade pact over the line at a regional meeting in Thailand this weekend, as Beijing’s bruising trade war with Washington rumbles on.
If signed, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) will be the world’s largest trade pact and is seen as a way for Beijing to cement trade ties in Asia as Washington retreats from the region.
Leaders are hoping for a breakthrough in RCEP talks at this weekend’s meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) after seven years of negotiations over the deal, which would comprise 30 percent of global commerce and half the world’s population if signed.
But members risk losing steam after dozens of rounds of negotiations and several missed deadlines to sign the pact.
Commerce ministers met yesterday after an hours-long negotiation session to hammer out sticking points, as India digs in over concerns its market will be flooded with cheap made-in-China goods.
“There is one last step that every country has to find the solution to,” said Thai commerce minister Jurin Laksanawisit at the start of the meeting.
Chinese premier Li Keqiang will attend the three-day summit in Bangkok -- officially kicking off today amid a backdrop of heavy security -- where simmering tensions in the South China Sea will also top the agenda.
Indian PM Narendra Modi will also be there, as he battles fears at home that key industries like metals, textiles and dairy could be hard-hit by RCEP, which loops in 10 Southeast Asian economies along with Japan, India, New Zealand and Australia.
New Delhi’s foreign ministry said Thursday “critical” issues remain to be ironed out.
In what is being read by some as a snub to this weekend’s meeting, the US will send national security advisor Robert O’Brien and commerce chief Wilbur Ross. US Vice President Mike Pence attended last year’s Asean summit in Singapore, and President Donald Trump was at the 2017 meeting in the Philippines.