Nations involved in negotiating Asia’s most ambitious trade agreement will drop their declared goal of concluding the talks by the end of this year, official sources said on Wednesday.
Leaders from the 16 countries negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement will say in a statement that they “will accelerate the negotiations for the swift conclusion without indicating time or date”, one source said. The statement on the progress and future direction of the talks is expected to be issued on Thursday afternoon, the source said.
Another high-ranking official, who is not involved in the negotiations but has a close overall knowledge of Association of Southeast Asian Nations affairs, said the leaders “will read out a statement to redemonstrate resolve and commitment since they cannot conclude this year”.
The leaders involved in the talks are in Laos this week to attend other meetings related to the annual Asean summit.
The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership countries are the 10 Asean member states plus Japan, China, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.
Leaders had said in a joint statement in Kuala Lumpur last year that they “look forward to the conclusion of the RCEP negotiations in 2016”.
However, the talks have made little progress and discussions on details have not begun.
A deal is unlikely in the coming months and negotiators will probably need another year to continue talks, according to analysts.
Asean deputy secretary general Lim Hong Hin said “we are trying to find a compromise or middle ground” to meet the different expectations among members.
He said that the new pact was being built upon existing free trade agreements Asean already has with its partners.
However, countries outside Asean may not have existing free trade agreements with each other. For example, China and India.
“It is a challenge for the dialogue partners who do not have free trade agreements between them, so they are trying to find a level of comfort. They have to come up with a common understanding of what they can do.”
Negotiations for the new pact will be speeded up by holding three rounds of talks during the rest of this year in Tianjin in October, in the Philippines and in Indonesia in December.
“We would like to make more progress on all sectors,” Lim said.
There are 14 working groups as well as sub-working groups. There is also a trade negotiating committee. Each round is attended by 600 to 700 officials.
The trade pact partnership was launched in 2012 with the original target of concluding a deal by the end of 2015. Even though 14 rounds of negotiations have been held so far, along with four ministerial meetings, it is understood that, as of the middle of this year, the RCEP countries have only submitted initial offers for trade in goods and trade in services, initial reservation lists for investment and initial requests in goods and services.
The pact has been seen as a China-led initiative, compared with the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal which was signed in January this year and is still awaiting ratification by its member countries.
Some RCEP member countries, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei, are already part of the US-led trade initiative.
Asean members such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand have started to show an interest in the Trans-Pacific Partnership initiative.