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RCEP partners considering options to move forward on deal

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ASEAN
File photo of the ASEAN flag -- AFP

THE 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the six countries with which the economic bloc has free trade agreements will consider “options” to move forward on the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) even as its signing by the end of the year has become unlikely.

“That’s what we want to have,” Trade Secretary Ramon M. Lopez told reporters, referring to a compromise amid what he called a “stalemate” in the discussions to conclude a free trade agreement that will expand ASEAN’s consumer base to nearly half of the world’s population and an economic heft of about 30% of global gross domestic product.

Mr. Lopez said he would present the options when the economic ministers of ASEAN and their trading partners meet this week to arrive at a consensus in the RCEP talks.

“It’s still the same objective of arriving at better terms especially in the trade in goods,” he said on Tuesday on the sidelines of country’s hosting of the second ASEAN Young Entrepreneurs Carnival at the Philippine International Convention Center.

ASEAN members Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam started their talks in 2012 along with their free trade agreement partners Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.

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He said member states need to come to an agreement and “accept the reality that some governments are restricted from coming up or agreeing to certain provisions” of RCEP, which will cover trade in goods and services, investment, economic and technical cooperation, among other issues.

ASEAN needs to decide if it will agree to a lower level of tariff liberalization of 90% and come up with a meaningful conclusion to the negotiations, he said, adding that nearly “all are gunning for a 90% to 92%” level.

As options to end the stalemate, he said the Philippines as host of this year’s ASEAN meetings will present an alternative that will cover the 15 ready countries and exclude one that cannot commit yet to the desired level of liberalization in the trading of goods. The ASEAN economic ministers’ meeting is set for Sept. 4-11.

He said the excluded country will be allowed to commit phases of improvement over a certain period, thus allowing its eventual inclusion in RCEP.

Mr. Lopez said he was also looking at “reciprocity” wherein a member state can trade with another based on what it is ready to commit.

“‘Pag ‘yan ang ‘binigay mo ito lang ang ibibigay din namin (If that’s what you will give, then this is also what we are willing to give),” he said.

“So ‘yan ang mga options na puwedeng mong i-consider kung gusto mo’ng lahat kasama pa rin (So those are the options that you could consider if you still want to include all),” he said.

He described the options as “fair treatment” for all member states, allowing them to conclude RCEP. He said there was no pressure to hasten the agreement in face of the collapse of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed trade deal that includes a number of Asian and North American countries but excludes China and India.

“RCEP, as we’ve been saying, is really the only game or the only active trade discussion in this part of the region,” Mr. Lopez said.

Asked whether the signing of RCEP is still possible within the year, he said: “Unlikely ‘yong signing kasi ‘yong sa signing pati ‘yong pag-draft ng paper kasama rin (The signing is unlikely because it will include the drafting of the agreement paper).”

He said narrowing the agreement to a 90% level of liberalization would be a “best effort” among the members states.

Wala ka’ng magagawa. Best effort talaga (You can’t do anything. We can only promise best efforts),” he said.

Mr. Lopez said ASEAN member states have always been firm in their stand against protectionism.

“That has always been the position in this discussion — in ASEAN, in RCEP — that in this part of the region, we are all for better regional integration. We’ve been raising our concerns on issues on protectionism,” he said. — Victor V. Saulon

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