RCEP Ministers struggle to conclude negotiations in 2018

July 3, 2018: Last Sunday, Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade ministers met in Tokyo in an effort to maintain political momentum to reach an agreement by the end of 2018. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tried to take the initiative in the RCEP away from ASEAN as desperation deepens about the mounting trade war initiated by US President Donald Trump.

Singapore's Minister of Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing said at the opening: "We all also know that if we miss this moment, it will be very difficult for us to sustain the momentum going forward, because various countries will face various domestic circumstances that might not allow us to sustain this momentum easily."

Prime Minister Abe coined a new slogan, saying that “our future depends on whether we can keep hoisting our flagship principle of free and fair trade”. The equation of heightened corporate power with “fair” is Orwellian. However, the remark was aimed at Trump.

RCEP negotiators will meet in Bangkok on July 17-27, and were ordered to improve their market access offers to enable an outcome to be announced at the November ASEAN Summit.

Negotiations for the proposed RCEP began in 2013, and have struggled over tariffs, trade in services and investment rules, as well as protection for intellectual property rights. Many chapters have included wording from the discredited Trans-Pacific Partnership, which increase corporate monopoly rights on medicines and include investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) to allow foreign investors to sue governments over public interest laws and policies.

The 16 countries engaged in the RCEP have widely different levels of economic development. The Ministerial Statement recognised “the individual and diverse circumstances of the participating countries”, but at the same time demanded that negotiators achieve “improvements over the existing ASEAN+1 FTAs”.

However, India is unwilling to open up its manufacturing sector to Chinese competition and is resisting stronger medicine monopolies, ASEAN nations are wary of Indian demands for access to their services sectors, and China is more focused on its One Belt One Road Initiative. Australia is insisting on ISDS in the RCEP to empower Australian mining companies in the region.