SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Countries engaged in negotiations over a China-backed free trade pact have a “strong political will” to conclude the talks by the end of 2018, Singapore’s trade minister said on Friday.
The talks on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) were launched in 2012 and are expected to create a free trade area of several billion people.
The ten-nation Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is participating in the talks along with Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.
“We have a sense, discussing among first, the ASEAN ministers, as well as in our bilateral discussions with the other RCEP participating countries, that there is a strong political will to try and complete it by the end of this year,” Singapore Trade Minister Lim Hng Kiang told reporters.
Lim said the pact and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which is expected to be signed next week in Chile, offered “pathways” toward an eventual free trade agreement in the Asia-Pacific.
With the signing of the CPTPP, one of the pathways will become operational, Lim said, following a two-day meeting of ASEAN economic ministers.
“I think the RCEP participating countries are conscious that we should try and conclude the RCEP negotiations so that all the Asia-Pacific economies can participate, and have a trajectory that leads them to the eventual free trade agreement for the Asia-Pacific,” he added.
The final version of a revised Trans-Pacific Partnership pact aimed at cutting trade barriers in some of the fastest-growing economies of the Asia-Pacific region was released in February, signalling the deal was a step closer to reality, even without its star member the United States.
The original 12-member deal was thrown into limbo early last year when President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement to prioritize protecting U.S. jobs.
The 11 remaining nations, led by Japan, finalized a revised trade pact in January, called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). It is expected to be signed in Chile on March 8.
Reporting by Masayuki Kitano; Editing by Clarence Fernandez