The leaders of ASEAN have succeeded in persuading their top trading partners to start negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) to create the world’s largest trading bloc.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen formally launched the negotiations on the RCEP during the ASEAN Summit and Related Summits on Tuesday at a meeting at the Peace Palace in the western part of Phnom Penh.
The leaders of the 10-member regional grouping and their six major trading partners agreed to create a trading bloc that will comprise more than three billion people and with a combined GDP of US$15 trillion, roughly equal to that of the US.
ASEAN also launched the US-ASEAN Expanded Economic Engagement initiative, aimed at expanding trade and investment ties with the US and smoothing a path for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan said that plans for the RCEP would be welcomed by world leaders from Australia, India and the US as an amazing tool of economic integration that might become the benchmark for other regions.
“The spirit is not that of a zero-sum game. The economic integration of other regions is complementary to the economic integration among [ASEAN] member countries,” Gita told The Jakarta Post on the sidelines of the event.
“Many ASEAN member nations are conducting bilateral talks that are just fine, because they are complementary [to the RCEP],” Gita said.
The minister has previously said that the RCEP would “rewrap” five current free trade agreements (FTAs) with ASEAN’s six major trading partners, China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
ASEAN’s FTA with Australia and New Zealand covers both nations.
Gita said that the prospects for the RCEP were currently brighter than of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement touted by the US, as ASEAN already had FTAs in place, albeit mostly on goods and tariffs, with most of the nations involved.
The RCEP will expand upon existing FTAs to include agreements covering services and investment.
ASEAN is currently in discussions to expand its FTA with India, which it expects to complete in time for the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit next month in India. Similar negotiations will follow with Japan.
Earlier in the day, there was a global dialogue between ASEAN leaders with the heads of world financial institutions, including Asia Development Bank President Haruhiko Kuroda, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde, World
Bank Managing Director Caroline Anstey, UN Conference on Trade andDevelopment Secretary-General Supachai Panitchpakdi and World Trade Organization Director-General Pascal Lamy.
Gita said that the leaders agreed that ASEAN had shown itself to be resilient amid the global financial crisis, becoming a model for other economic zones.
“Also discussed were efforts to face financial crises, such as the Chiang Mai Initiative pool of funds, which has been increased from US$120 million to $240 million,” Gita said.
Another important decision that was made during meetings and summits in Cambodia between Nov. 15 and 20 was to start additional talks on implementing the ASEAN Economic Community on Dec. 31, 2015, to aid member nations in their preparations.
ASEAN’s leaders also adopted the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, despite critics who said that the document was not up to universal standards of human rights protection, promotion, monitoring and enjoyment.
At the end of the closing ceremony, Hun Sen presented the gavel to Brunei Darussalam Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah to mark the handover of ASEAN’s rotating chair from Cambodia to Brunei starting on Jan. 1.
Bolkiah said it would be the fourth time that Brunei would hold ASEAN’s chair, and that the nation had chosen a motto of “Our People, Our Future Together” for ASEAN for 2013.
ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan of Thailand also brought to an end to his term. He will be replaced by Vietnamese deputy foreign minister Le Luong Minh, who has been endorsed by ASEAN’s member nations.
Novan Iman Santosa
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