US-China tensions make Asian free-trade deal ‘a priority’

Talks on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership take on renewed urgency in the wake of Trump’s protectionism, says Malaysia’s top trade negotiator

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 October, 2018, 2:55pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 October, 2018, 10:43pm

The US-China trade war gives Southeast Asia fresh impetus to wrap up negotiations on a Beijing-backed free-trade deal that has been in the works for five years, Malaysia’s top trade negotiator has said.

Norazman Ayob’s comments at the South China Morning Post ’s China Conference in Kuala Lumpur echoed suggestions by regional leaders including Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong that the 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership may be finalised by the end of the year, after 23 rounds of negotiations stretching back to 2012.

Countries such as Singapore and Malaysia had initially viewed the RCEP as of secondary importance to the United States-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – but that has changed since the election of US President Donald Trump, who came to power last year on a protectionist platform.

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Since Trump pulled the US out of the TPP, that pact has been watered down and rename the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

Norazman said the RCEP was now the top priority.

RCEP, with Beijing’s involvement, was previously viewed as a direct challenge to the TPP – which excludes China.

The RCEP includes the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) nations as well as China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia.

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While negotiations are ongoing, Norazman said “the conflict between the US and China has provided an impetus [for] an early conclusion of RCEP”.

Trade ministers of the 16 countries are to meet this weekend in Singapore for a fresh round of high level talks after negotiations this week by their chief negotiators.

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Norazman, who is deputy secretary general of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, is Malaysia’s chief negotiator for the RCEP.

He said there were sticking points among participants such as India, but with economies feeling the pain of the US-China trade dispute, the free-trade deal had been thrust to the top of the agenda of many countries.

Speaking about Beijing’s “Belt and Road Initiative”, Norazman said the plan to connect China with Eurasia had “generated mixed reactions” around the world.

“It is viewed with growing pessimism in relation to the debt trap among certain economies,” he said, referring to growing suspicions that the initiative started by President Xi Jinping in 2013 was being used by Beijing to create client states.

“Malaysia would strongly urge that the Belt and Road Initiative enhance further cooperation programmes in technical and production capacity-building for transfer of technology and knowledge among the nations involved,” Norazman said.