RCEP leaders hold first-ever summit
Deal still elusive after 5 years of negotiations
MANILA: Leaders from 16 countries including China, India and Thailand began their first-ever summit yesterday to discuss an East Asian free trade deal that has been seen as a China-led rival to the Trans-Pacific Partnership that Japan has been trying to rejuvenate since the US withdrew earlier this year.
The gathering in Manila of leaders from the countries involved in negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement is expected to focus on speeding up negotiations for the RCEP deal, which has not been concluded after five years of negotiations.
The meeting followed the 31st Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) summit in Manila.
Apart from the 10 Asean nations, others involved in the RCEP deal are six of Asean’s FTA partners — Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.
Together, the group encompasses a population of 3.4 billion people and a combined GDP of US$49.5 trillion, or approximately 39% of the global economy.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte yesterday urged the RCEP leaders to provide the political momentum to urgently bring the negotiations to a close.
The “changing global economic landscape requires us to urgently bring the negotiations to a close”, he said in his opening remarks at the start of the summit.
The RCEP will be one of the largest trade pacts in history, covering almost half of the world’s population and more than one-third of the global gross domestic product.
Five years since its launch, there has been five ministerial meetings and 20 rounds of negotiations.
RCEP trade ministers, who held a preparatory meeting a few days earlier, agreed to try to wrap up the talks next year, having missed deadlines for three years in a row, including this year.
However, it is not clear if the leaders of RCEP countries will in fact be able to set or announce a new target date for completing negotiations in 2018 as the negotiations are complicated, and India is against doing so, one Asean source said.
“We have agreed that the RCEP should complete negotiations in 2018,” Indonesian Minister of Trade Enggartiasto Lukita told Kyodo News after a meeting in Manila among trade ministers from the countries involved in pursuing the RCEP free trade agreement earlier this week.
Mr Lukita said he urged RCEP countries with excessively high standards to reduce their expectations and be “more realistic and flexible”.
“The principle of flexibility is important,” another source said. “We are so diverse, we have developed countries, developing countries, we have emerging economies, so we have to be realistic.”
Meanwhile, during the Asean-Canada Summit yesterday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated his country’s desire to join the RCEP summit plus to be able to engage with its members on strategic, political and economic issues.
“We are ready to contribute to Asean’s success in an increasingly globalised world by joining the East Asia Summit ... at the earliest opportunity,” he said.
“As unprecedented dynamic growth is driving Southeast Asia’s importance on the world stage, it is critical that we build this progress and that we expand this partnership,” said Mr Trudeau, whose country’s engagement with Asean dates back 40 years.
Canada became an Asean “dialogue partner” in 1977 and is one of only 10 countries with this important level of partnership.
Mr Trudeau also reiterated Canada’s desire to be admitted to the Asean Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus, or ADMM-Plus, which has been held since 2010 to strengthen security and defence cooperation, and comprises the same 18 members.
MANILA: Wrapping up his extensive tour of Asia, US President Donald Trump yesterday hailed “tremendous amounts of work’’ on trade and said nations around the globe have been put on notice that the US will demand improved trading conditions.
Mr Trump told reporters in Manila that the “fruits of our labour are going to be incredible’’. He was closing a nearly twoweek trip through Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines that included one-on-one meetings with the leaders of those nations during which he stressed trade.
The president, who campaigned on shredding multilateral trade agreements he has deemed unfair, insisted during his travels that multibillion-dollar deficits that favour US trading partners will be reduced to zero, and that trade overall must be fair and mutually beneficial.
“The United States has to be treated fairly and in a reciprocal fashion,” Mr Trump tweeted before heading back to Washington, where he was scheduled to arrive later yesterday. “The massive TRADE deficits must go down quickly!’’
Mr Trump told reporters before departing an international summit, “We’ve had a tremendously successful trip. Tremendous amounts of work was done on trade.”
The president spoke on the sidelines of the annual East Asia Summit of leaders from throughout the Asia-Pacific region, his final summit after attending an Asean gathering on Monday. Mr Trump said he planned to make a “major statement’’ about his trip from the White House later this week, and spoke of the “many good friends’’ he made during the trip.
Among Mr Trump’s newest friends in the region is Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whom Mr Trump repeatedly praised and joked around with on Monday. Mr Duterte has overseen a bloody crackdown on domestic drug dealing that has featured extrajudicial killings, earning him scorn from human rights advocates.
Mr Trump did not publicly take Mr Duterte to task for the crackdown. Instead, Mr Trump said he and Mr Duterte have “had a great relationship’’ and avoided questions about whether he would raise human rights concerns with the Philippines leader during a private meeting.
The White House later said they discussed the Islamic State group, illegal drugs and trade during the 40-minute meeting. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said human rights came up “briefly’’ in the context of the Philippines’ fight against illegal drugs. She did not say if Mr Trump was critical of Mr Duterte’s programme.
Her readout appeared to conflict with the Philippine version of the meeting. Harry Roque, a spokesman for Mr Duterte, said: “There was no mention of human rights. There was no mention of extralegal killings. There was only a rather lengthy discussion of the Philippine war on drugs with President Duterte doing most of the explaining.’’
Despite all that, they later issued a joint statement saying they “underscored that human rights and the dignity of human life are essential, and agreed to continue mainstreaming the human rights agenda in their national programmes”.
Mr Duterte’s war on drugs has alarmed human rights advocates around the world who say it has allowed police officers and vigilantes to ignore due process and to take justice into their own hands. Government officials estimate that well over 3,000 people, mostly drug users and dealers, have died in the ongoing crackdown. Human rights groups believe the victim total is far higher, perhaps closer to 9,000.
In Manila for the Asean conference, and the subsequent East Asia Summit, Mr Trump looked to strengthen ties with Pacific Rim allies, aiming to strike oneon-one trade deals rather than multinational trade agreements, and increase pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear programme.
He met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and highlighted their two nations’ “deeper and more comprehensive” ties, looking to strengthen a relationship that is vital to the US vision of an Indo-Pacific region that attempts to deemphasise China’s influence.
He jointly met with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, with whom he had a contentious phone call last winter, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who hosted the president in Tokyo earlier in the trip. Mr Trump raved about his accomplishments on his five-nation journey, particularly on trade and on North Korea.
Mr Trump said he would wait until he was back in Washington to elaborate with a “major statement’’ on those two topics, but hinted at progress while in Manila.
“We’ve made some very big steps with regard to trade — far bigger than anything you know,’’ Mr Trump told reporters, pointing to business deals forged between US and foreign companies.
Mr Trump also said the trip had been “very fruitful’’ for the United States and pointed to the warm welcomes he had received in capitals like Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing. “It was red carpet like nobody, I think, has probably ever received,’’ Mr Trump said. “And that really is a sign of respect, perhaps for me a little, but really for our country. And I’m really proud of that.”
FROM LEFT TO RIGHT Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak, Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Singapore’s Permanent Secretary of Foreign Affairs Chee Wee Kiong hold hands for a group photo during the Asean-Canada 40th anniversary commemorative summit in Manila, the Philippines, yesterday.
Protesters burn a US flag during a rally against US President Donald Trump in Manila yesterday.