MANILA: Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday (Nov 14) called for the 16 countries involved in negotiations for a free trade agreement (FTA) to adjust their ambitions to “realistic levels”, five years after the process started.
Speaking at the first sit-down meeting for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) since 2012 between ASEAN's 10 members and China, Japan, South Korea, India, New Zealand and Australia, he said negotiations have taken “longer than expected”.
He added that the participating countries have missed three deadlines to conclude negotiations - this year, 2015 and 2016.
He urged the countries to engage each other with “good faith, in (a) frank and open manner” and to generate the commitment and collective effort in order to bring RCEP to a conclusion.
The RCEP is expected to bring about tangible benefits to businesses and citizens in the 16 countries involved. It will “show the world that the region is confident in our economic future”, Mr Lee said.
However, he acknowledged that the challenges faced by RCEP parties are complex, given the need to balance the sensitivities and political constraints of each country.
“We have the challenging task of finding common landing zones even though many RCEP parties do not have Free Trade Agreements with each other,” he said.
Notwithstanding these challenges, it is important that they aim for an ambitious RCEP and expedite the negotiations, he added.
“As ASEAN Chair next year, Singapore is fully committed to exercise maximum efforts to push negotiations forward,” he said.
SUBSTANTIAL WORK REMAINS TO BE DONE
At the previous ASEAN summit in April, Mr Lee said that with the group already having separate FTAs with each of these existing partners, Singapore is of the opinion that there needs to be something more in the RCEP for the package to be “substantial, meaningful” and one that has balance, and benefits for all participants.
On Tuesday, he expressed appreciation for the participating countries which he said have all worked very hard to make progress.
Noting the Ministers’ report that substantial work remains to be done, he called for “creative solutions” such as addressing sensitivities in smaller configurations if necessary.
Even as cooperation within the region has deepened, with the countries now more interdependent, it is important to press on with economic integration amidst growing sentiment against globalisation, he said.