China-Backed Asia Trade Deal Pushed Back to 2019 Amid Delays

(Bloomberg) -- Asian nations gave up hopes of completing a 16-nation trade bloc this year, with Chinese and Australian officials now looking to finalize the deal in 2019.

Singapore, which is chairing the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations this year, had pushed for a substantial conclusion to the agreement this year. Known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, the trade deal would cover almost half the world’s population.

“It will take a little bit longer to ensure that we get the type of substantial, meaningful, commercially meaningful market access decisions that Australia expects in a trade agreement,” Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham told reporters Tuesday in Singapore. That’s despite ministers from RCEP nations meeting until late on Monday night and making substantial progress, he said.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang echoed those sentiments in a speech in Singapore on Tuesday, saying he hoped the RCEP talks would be completed next year. China has pushed to diversify its export markets amid a trade war with U.S. President Donald Trump, adding fresh urgency to the negotiations.

“With the headwind of trade protectionism, free trade is facing some difficulties,” Li said.

RCEP is often seen as a rival to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a vast regional pact once led by the U.S. that Trump withdrew from early in his presidency. Together with the Belt and Road Initiative to build investment and trade links with countries along the old Silk Road to Europe, the pact is a key element in China’s efforts to seize the geopolitical advantage following what many in the region see as a U.S. retreat.

Beijing’s struggles to finalize the trade bloc may illustrate worries in the region about becoming too economically dependent on China.

And in a speech to an ASEAN business and investment conference on Tuesday, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad said the bloc must not accept trade and investment measures that may be unfair to member countries.

“RCEP must facilitate not only the interest of big firms but also the SMEs in the region,” Mahathir said. “RCEP must see an enhanced role for SMEs to leverage and move towards
becoming middle-sized and large-sized companies.”

While negotiations to reach an agreement on RCEP have stalled, a negotiator for the pact is confident it will get across the line. “It cannot be signed this year,” Iman Pambagyo, RCEP’s trade negotiating committee chairman, said Nov. 6. “We are aiming for some time next year, perhaps the second part of 2019.”

India has dragged its feet as RCEP doesn’t provide for free movement of skilled labor, a key concern for New Delhi given its large pool of tech workers, even as it opens its market to a clutch of nations known for their manufacturing prowess. It is facing pressure from member nations -- including Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea -- to conclude talks.