Trade tops agenda of ASEAN ministers' meetings
MANILA, Philippines – Enhancing economic trade with Japan, upgrading existing free trade agreements (FTAs), and discussing Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) are the matters on agenda for the 1st day of the 31st summit in Manila on Sunday, November 12.
Philippine Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez said before economic ministers of ASEAN neighbors that the agenda for Sunday, November 12, covers "very critical areas" instrumental in advancing the region's internal integration process. (LIVE: 31st ASEAN Summit, November 12)
"Nonetheless, there is much work that needs to be done to ensure that we stay the course," Lopez said in a ministerial meeting in Pasay City.
"We have, as our major agenda, the preparations for the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), wherein we will take stock of on what we have accomplished as far in moving the AEC forward."
Improved ASEAN-Japan relations
Back in September, the economic ministers from the 10 ASEAN-member states as well as Japan's Minister of Trade met to discuss how they can their strengthen economic cooperation towards shared prosperity and inclusive growth.
Lopez said during the September meeting, ASEAN member-state and Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METRI) discussed how they can finalize the protocol to amend the ASEAN-Japan Comprehensive Economic Partnership (AJCEP) agreement to incorporate the chapters on trade in services, movement of natural persons, as well as investment.
"During our consultations with Japan, we will discuss the only remaining issue to date that withholds the finalization of the protocol on the AJCEP," Lopez told the economic ministers. (READ: Japan and the ASEAN: Economic partners)
Merchandise trade between ASEAN and Japan reached $201.9 billion in 2016, placing Japan as the region's 4th largest trading partner.
Lopez said it is important for the ASEAN economic ministers to exert utmost flexibility to finalize the protocol to amed AJCEP as soon as possible.
Enhanced free trade agreements
Aside from improving economic relations with Japan, Lopez said ASEAN also aims to enhance free trade agreements (FTAs) beyond the region.
"We also worked doubly hard on enhancing our external partnerships. This includes upgrading and enhancing our existing free trade agreements, intensifying our efforts to complete ongoing FTA negotiations, and strengthening economic cooperation mechanisms," Lopez said during the preparatory meeting on Sunday.
Businesses will push for the reduction or removal of non-tariff barriers at the 1st day of ASEAN summit in a bid to fully realize the gains of liberalization. Non-tariff barriers refer to restrictions such as quotas, embargoes, sanctions, and levies.
RCEP after 20 rounds of negotiations
After 20 rounds of negotiation, Lopez said the economic ministers of ASEAN is set to discuss progress made for RCEP.
As the world's first pan-Asia free trade deal, China-led RCEP boasts a list of impressive statistics, like covering almost 30% of global gross domestic product (GDP) and roughly half of the world's population. But its scope is more limited than that of the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
"Another important agenda item that we will tackle today is the preparations for the preparatory RCEP ministerial meeting, with discussions will focus on collective assessment paper and the joint leaders statement on the RCEP," Lopez said before the ASEAN economic ministers.
The RCEP includes the ASEAN-10, in addition to China, India, Japan, Korea, Australia, and New Zealand – the countries with which the ASEAN already has free trade agreements. (READ: Philippines shopping for 'nice' China-funded infra deals)
Lopez said discussions will focus on a "collective assessment paper," which provides an inventory of measures or targets that can be completed this year, those that need to be further discussed, and those that require reconsideration of current mandates.
"This is a welcome progress, giving an overview of what has been achieved in the past 20 rounds of RCEP negotiations. It also gives us a direction of where to proceed and what to focus our attention on," Lopez said. – Rappler.com