Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have vowed to try to conclude the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) this year, deputy government spokesman Werachon Sukondhapatipak said on Saturday.
“All member states agreed that the RCEP is important for this region because of the uncertainty of the world economy. The partnership will be an important strategy to drive members’ GDP growth and attract investments to Asean,” Lt Gen Werachon said after the plenary session of the Asean summit in Bangkok.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha chaired the preliminary session leading up to the summit of government leaders, which will take place on Sunday at the Athenee Hotel on Wireless Road.
He told the Bloomberg Asean Business Summit on Friday that he was confident about seeing the pact concluded during his Asean chairmanship.
The RCEP comprises all 10 Asean members plus China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. Negotiations began in 2012 and were supposed to have been concluded in late 2015, but they have bogged down repeatedly amid disputes over protected sectors and market access, mainly between India and China.
Signatory countries to the RCEP have a combined population of 3.56 billion, with trade value worth US$10.3 trillion, or 29% of the world’s trade. Thailand’s trade with RCEP members amounted to $290 billion in 2018 or 59.7% of its total trade.
Thailand took over the chair of the 10-member grouping from Singapore this year. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last year that the trade pact backed by China was in the final stage and he expected its conclusion this year.
Apart from strengthening their cooperation in diverse sectors under the political and security, economic, and socio-cultural pillars of the Asean Community, all leaders also agreed to increase cooperation in preparing their businesses and citizens for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Lt Gen Werachon said.
When the leaders meet again on Sunday, controversial issues as the South China Sea dispute and violence in Rakhine state of Myanmar are expected to be discussed. But any statements that emerge will be vague, in keeping with members’ belief in non-interference in the internal affairs of others.
Concrete action will be in short supply as well. By way of example, foreign ministers meeting in Bangkok on Saturday were celebrating the fact that they were close to agreeing on a negotiating text for a Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea. Asean and China first agreed to discuss a CoC in 2002.