RCEP negotiations going down to wire ahead of summit

Hardball negotiations to seal a mega deal to create the world's largest free trade area went down to the wire on Sunday with India holding on to its demand for amicable resolution of market access and tariff-related issues.

Diplomats from several countries involved in the negotiations for the long-overdue Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) deal said they were still hoping for a breakthrough ahead of Monday's summit meeting among the grouping's leaders.

The RCEP comprises 10 ASEAN nations and six of its FTA (free trade agreement) partners - China, India, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.

If finalised, the RCEP deal will facilitate creation of the biggest free-trade region in the world as the 16-nation grouping is home to 3.6 billion people, or nearly half the world's population.

On Saturday, the trade ministers from 16 RCEP countries failed to resolve the outstanding issues identified by India, though back-channel talks continued on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit to resolve the sticky issues.

Diplomatic sources said the leaders at the RCEP summit are expected to issue a "joint statement" signalling end to the years of negotiations for the deal, leaving the contentious issues to be resolved through talks by the officials within a specified timeline.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and leaders of 15 other RCEP member countries will deliberate on the deal at a summit on Monday, and officials said a "positive outcome" is expected to emerge from the deliberations.

India has been forcefully raising the issue of market access as well as protected lists of goods mainly to shield its domestic market as there have been fears that the country may be flooded with cheap Chinese agricultural and industrial products once it signs the deal.

The sources said except India, all 15 RCEP member countries were on board in finalising the deal at Monday's summit.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, addressing a press conference at the end of the ASEAN summit, called for concluding the negotiations for the RCEP deal.

The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been strongly pushing for quickly sealing the RCEP deal to offset the fallout of the US-China trade war.

The RCEP negotiations were launched by ASEAN leaders and six other countries during the 21st ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh in November 2012. The objective of launching RCEP negotiations was to achieve a modern, comprehensive, high-quality, and mutually beneficial economic partnership agreement among the ASEAN member States and its FTA partners.

When asked whether India will take the plunge and sign the deal, two Indian officials said the country will be guided by its national interests, but at the same time noted that the country was in favour of the regional deal.

Modi on Saturday said addressing India's concerns over "unsustainable trade deficits" remained important and that opening the vast Indian market must be matched by openings in some areas where Indian businesses can benefit.

"We have put forward reasonable proposals in a clear manner and are engaged in negotiations with sincerity. We would like to see commensurate levels of ambition on services from many of our partners, even as we are ready to address their sensitivities," Modi said in an interview to Bangkok Post newspaper.

"Overall, we are clear that a mutually beneficial RCEP, in which all sides gain reasonably, is in interests of India and of all partners in the negotiation," he said.

It is understood that the issue of RCEP deal figured during Modi's separate bilateral meetings with Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.

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