PM Lee confident RCEP deal can be inked in 2019

The Business Times by LEE U-WEN


AS negotiations to create the world's largest free-trade area drag on into the new year and beyond, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he is confident that a deal for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) can be reached in 2019.

"What has been committed is we will complete the negotiations next year. It's a strong commitment, and I have reasonable confidence that it will happen," he said during a press conference at the end of the 33rd Asean Summit on Thursday.

He was responding to a question by The Business Times on whether Singapore, this year's Asean chair, was disappointed that a deal to conclude the RCEP could not be reached this week as had earlier been hoped.

There have been suggestions that the positive momentum generated this year could fizzle out, especially as several of the 16 RCEP members - Thailand, Indonesia and India, to name a few - are gearing up for national elections next year, hence the concerns over a slowdown in the negotiation process.

"We would, of course, have been delighted if we could have settled the RCEP here. It would have been an excellent little feather in our cap," said Mr Lee.

"But we understand political exigencies, we appreciate that a lot of progress has been made and that we are very close to the finish line."

The RCEP involves all 10 member states of Asean, and six key partners with which the bloc has existing free-trade agreements - China, South Korea, Japan, India, Australia and New Zealand.

Negotiations began in 2012 for a free-trade zone that would account for 45 per cent of the world's population, 40 per cent of global trade, and a third of the world's gross domestic product.

At the RCEP Summit on Wednesday, Mr Lee told the other 15 leaders that the deal was at risk of losing credibility and support from stakeholders if negotiations were further prolonged.

Many businesses and people will also end up missing major opportunities if should the talks drag on, he added.

Earlier at the closing ceremony of the Asean Summit, he noted that "considerable strides" have been made this year towards a "more united, resilient and innovative Asean".

Even so, he stressed that this is only the beginning of a new and exciting chapter for the bloc, and that the work is "never done" in building and strengthening the Asean community.

"We must continue to uphold the Asean-centric frameworks, and engage our partners to keep our region open and inclusive. We must stay on the course of economic integration and pool our talents and resources to improve our people's lives," he said.

"Despite our individual national interests, we must continue to think regionally and invest political capital in the Asean project."

Mr Lee later handed a symbolic gavel to Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, to mark the official handover of the Asean chairmanship to Thailand, the 2019 chair.

Thailand last held the rotating position in 2008, also upon taking over the role from Singapore. Vietnam will be the chair in 2020.

With the Asean Summit done and dusted, Mr Lee flies to Papua New Guinea on Friday to attend this weekend's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit.

The Apec Economic Leaders' Meeting takes place on Saturday and Sunday in Port Moresby, the country's capital and its largest city. This is the first time that the Pacific island nation, the poorest of the 21 Apec members, is hosting the annual summit.

Among the other leaders making their way there are Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and US Vice-President Mike Pence.

When asked by BT on what Singapore will bring to the high-level discussions there, Mr Lee expressed his hope that the meetings will continue to send a strong message in support of an open and rules-based multilateral system.

"I hope it will also press on with Apec's long-standing objectives of promoting free and open trade and investment in the region," he said.

In a statement, Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Mr Lee will also take the opportunity to hold bilateral meetings with other Apec leaders on the sidelines.

During Mr Lee's absence, Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean will be the Acting Prime Minister.