Leaders of the 16 participating countries of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) reaffirmed their commitment here on Tuesday to reach a regional free trade agreement (FTA).
They made the pledge at a meeting held on the sidelines of the 31st Summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and related meetings. This has been the first RCEP leaders' meeting since the partnership was launched in 2012.
"While this negotiation continues to be a complex and challenging task, we reaffirmed our commitment to achieve a modern, comprehensive, high-quality and mutually beneficial economic partnership agreement negotiated as a single undertaking that would support an open and enabling trade and investment environment in the region," the leaders said in a joint statement released after the talks.
"We reaffirmed our resolve to ensure that RCEP delivers its potential to be a key driver of growth and equitable economic development, and serve as a pathway to further integrate our economies," the statement said.
Over the past year, increased engagement by ministers in the negotiations had led to some breakthroughs, it said, adding the leaders now "instruct the ministers and negotiators to intensify efforts in 2018 to bring the negotiations to conclusion."
"Despite the recent global economic slowdown, rising protectionism and anti-globalization sentiments, our economies have remained resilient and continued to grow apace relative to the rest of the world," the statement said.
"We acknowledged the valuable contribution of trade openness and regional economic integration which cushion the region from the more volatile global macroeconomic environment, allowing us to maintain our robust economic performance."
RCEP is an FTA scheme of the 10 ASEAN member states and its six FTA partners - China, Australia, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.
The leaders reiterated the "immense potential of RCEP, with the 16 participating countries accounting for almost half of the world population, 31.6 percent of global output, 28.5 percent of global trade and a fifth of the global foreign direct investment inflows in 2016, to support job generation, drive sustainable growth, foster inclusive development, and promote innovation, which would ultimately improve the living standards of our people."
To deliver the outcomes, the leaders called for consolidation of the ASEAN+1 FTAs and building new economic linkages between ASEAN's FTA partners that do not have bilateral FTAs with each other.
At the same time, RCEP should take into consideration the different levels of development of the participating countries, and include appropriate forms of flexibility including provision for special and differential treatment, plus additional flexibility to the least-developed ASEAN member states, consistent with the existing ASEAN+1 FTAs, as applicable, the statement noted.
So far, 20 rounds of negotiations on RCEP have already been held, with the latest one in South Korea's western port city of Incheon in October.
The Philippines, as the rotating chair of ASEAN for 2017, has urged all related parties to fast-track the FTA talks to an early conclusion.
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