China’s vice-minister of commerce has thrown his support behind Hong Kong joining the world‘s biggest free-trade deal to expand cooperation with other Asian countries amid the economic turmoil of Covid-19 , with the city’s leader hoping to begin accession talks “at the earliest opportunity”. Hong Kong’s accession to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) – a Beijing-led trade pact between 15 countries, seen as a counterweight to US influence in the region – was highlighted by high-ranking Chinese officials at the annual Belt and Road Summit, which was held virtually on Monday. Addressing the audience of business leaders, Chinese vice-minister of commerce, Wang Bingnan, said he endorsed Hong Kong’s “very important role” in advancing the country’s development, and called for its accession to the deal. “We proactively support Hong Kong in joining RCEP as early as possible, so that Hong Kong can further enhance its international and regional collaboration, as well as expand its own network,” he said. Speaking at the same session, Xie Feng, Beijing’s top diplomat in Hong Kong, said that with mounting protectionism and unilateralism challenging globalisation, RCEP was evidence that differences in systems, values and stages of development were “not necessarily obstacles to win-win cooperation”. “We should not form small circles to keep others out, draw ideological lines, resort to a zero-sum mentality … and pass judgments on other countries’ internal affairs,” Xie told the summit. What is RCEP and what does an Indo-Pacific free-trade deal offer China? Now the world’s largest free-trade bloc, covering 2.2 billion people, the RCEP agreement encompasses 15 nations, including the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). The agreement also brings China, Japan and South Korea together in a trade pact for the first time, along with Five Eyes members Australia and New Zealand. Hong Kong, Taiwan and India were among the very few major Asian economies that were not signatories. Hong Kong’s business leaders and officials have expressed hopes of being among the first economies to join the pact once it opens its doors to new members, with city finance chief Paul Chan Mo-po saying last week that it would benefit the business hub’s trade in services and investment. Reiterating the government’s interest, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on Monday praised the new agreement as a testament to multilateralism that would “inject fresh impetus to the global economic recovery” in the post-Covid-19 period. Can China, Japan and South Korea follow RCEP with their own free-trade deal? She also vowed that Hong Kong would help to uphold a rules-based multilateral trade system, which she characterised as “essentially important” during the pandemic. “Hong Kong is more than qualified to join the partnership … We are grateful for the clear support we received from some of the partnership member states,” she told the summit, which was co-organised by the government and the Hong Kong Trade Development Council. “We look forward to beginning discussions on Hong Kong’s accession to the partnership at the earliest opportunity.” A director of Asean’s secretariat, Anna Robeniol, head of market integration, had previously said that the bloc had no reason to stand in the way of Hong Kong joining the deal, pointing out that any separate customs territory could accede to the agreement 18 months after it comes into force The deal, signed on November 15, eliminates tariffs mainly for goods that already qualify for duty-free treatment under existing free trade agreements.