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Asia-Pacific ministers admit no RCEP agreement by year-end

Philippine Department of Trade and Industry Secretary Ramon Lopez delivers his speech during the opening ceremony of the Asean Economic Ministers and Related Meetings in Manila on Thursday. (AP photo)

MANILA: Economic ministers from 16 Asia-Pacific countries negotiating an alternative trade pact to the floundering Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) pact acknowledged on Sunday no agreement will be finalised by year-end.

Instead, the economic ministers involved in negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement -- covering more than 3.5 billion people, or half the world's population, and 30% of global gross domestic product and trade -- said they will strive to make major progress by November when the leaders of the 16 nations meet in Manila.

Those 16 nations are China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, as well as all 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

The RCEP is viewed as a major alternative to the TPP, the 12-nation trade pact agreed last year and then dealt a massive blow by the withdrawal in January of the United States as one of the first acts by US President Donald Trump.

The RCEP is "the only game in town given the current negotiations of the TPP," said Philippine trade undersecretary Ceferino Rodolfo.

Economic ministers from the 16 nations were meeting in Manila as part of the 49th Asean Economic Ministers Meeting and Related Meetings.

The gathering was also the fifth ministerial meeting for the RCEP, for which negotiations began in 2013.

The RCEP participating countries abandoned the target of concluding the negotiations within this year due to differences in tariff reduction or elimination targets, as well as services to be opened up, according to Rodolfo.

Instead, they aim to achieve a "substantial conclusion" or "a significant breakthrough" when the leaders of Asean and their dialogue partners meet in November.

"With the 20th RCEP Trade Negotiating Committee negotiations next month (in South Korea), as well as the Leaders' Meeting in November, all countries are hard at work to resolve the key outstanding issues in the negotiations," Rodolfo told a news briefing earlier in the day.

"...at this critical juncture where there is a general slowdown in growth across the world and rising protectionist mindset, it is important for the RCEP to step up and set the example for the pursuit of freer trade," he also said, speaking on behalf of the Philippine government, which is chairing Asean activities this year.

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