TRADE ministers have reached a consensus to complete a basic framework for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) within the year, though the members are under pressure to approve a document because of limited time to meet and forge a deal.

“There was general consensus among Ministers to conclude the RCEP negotiations within the year,” Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) Secretary Ramon M. Lopez said in his report on the 4th ASEAN Economic Minsters’ Retreat held in Singapore between Feb. 23 and March 3.

“The target is to finalize all issues by the October meeting. I impressed the need for swift conclusion but at the same time, maintain the high quality that was initially agreed on,” Mr. Lopez said.

With only two RCEP ministerial meetings scheduled for 2018, Mr. Lopez said the members need to conduct “extra” dialogue around end-June, at a meeting to be hosted by Japan.

The minutes, as sent to reporters over the weekend, noted that ministers have set target discussions for each negotiating round in the following months to fast-track the process.

Mr. Lopez noted that prospects for agreement with two or three non-ASEAN dialogue partners are uncertain.

“We have not yet obtained agreement from the non-ASEAN partners,” Mr. Lopez told reporters on Friday. He did not provide details, though he has said that differences remain on the degree of liberalization to be adopted in the trade in goods.

Members are required to submit a new round of counter-offers and proposals on April 13.

Since 2012, the 10 ASEAN member states — Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — have been trying to conclude negotiations on RCEP. The pact involves free trade agreements with Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.

If concluded, RCEP members, whose GDPs will make up a third of the global economy, will account for close to half of the world’s population.

Mr. Lopez hopes that prospects of sealing the final RCEP terms will improve by June or July.

Elswhere, the ASEAN and the European Union (EU), during consultations held alongside the ASEAN retreat, agreed to continue pursuing a framework for a possible trade agreement between the two blocs, with a decision on the matter expected next year.

“I supported the continuing engagement with the EU as this will serve as an alternate avenue for increased market access of Philippine goods to the country’s 4th top export destination and possible expanded working opportunities for Overseas Filipino Workers,” Mr. Lopez said.

Mr. Lopez said he also raised the country’s need to adopt a “special safeguard mechanism” to protect farmers from the influx of agricultural imports.

“This was well received by ASEAN and the EU,” Mr. Lopez added. — Janina C. Lim