THE COUNTRIES negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) have no choice but to resolve contentious issues relating to the creation of the economic bloc by year’s end, an official of the Department of Trade of Industry (DTI) said.

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File photo of DTI Secretary Ramon M. Lopez

“There is a strong incentive and motivation for everyone on the table to really reach something significant by the end of this year,” said Ceferino S. Rodolfo, Trade undersecretary and managing head of the department’s investment promotion arm Board of Investments.

He made the statement ahead of an RCEP ministerial meeting on Sept. 10 in Manila in line with next week’s 49th ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Economic Ministers’ (AEM) meeting.

RCEP, which if concluded will create an economic bloc that covers nearly half of the world population, entered the Manila round of discussions in May, 2017. The 18th trade negotiating committee meeting sought to arrive at crucial commitments to move closer to a conclusion.

The partnership will link ASEAN — the economic bloc that includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — and the six countries it has free trade agreements with: Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.

Mr. Rodolfo said although he does not expect the RCEP signing by the end of the year, he said “at the very least, pave the way so that the most contentious issues are discussed and (there is an) agreement on how to move forward.”

Citing notes from DTI Secretary Ramon M. Lopez, the undersecretary said the meeting on Sunday would consider the report of the trade negotiating committee, which contains the set of key elements for “significant outcomes” in the negotiations to be achieved by end-2017.

“This is a follow-up action to a decision made by the ministers in Hanoi in May,” he said, describing the previous action as the “ministers imprimatur on the key elements and clear guidance on how to deal with [future] challenges.”

He added that the trade negotiating committee was hoping to achieve some breakthroughs when its members meet in South Korea in October.

“I think this will be the last RCEP ministerial meeting, then [there will be] only one negotiating round in Korea in October,” he said.

Mr. Rodolfo said among the contentious issues to be resolved is the level of liberalization, adding some of the negotiating countries were offering an initial 92% while others are sticking to as low as 70% or so.

RCEP aims to achieve a modern, comprehensive, high-quality and mutually beneficial economic partnership agreement. Once concluded, it will further contribute in deepening ASEAN’s economic integration and heighten its role in global trade and investment.

DTI previously said RCEP is poised to boost global growth by expanding the ASEAN consumer base of 620 million to 3.5 billion, integrating the major economic players’ markets, which will account for almost half of the world’s population and almost 30% of global gross domestic product. — Victor V. Saulon