By Genalyn Kabiling and the Associated Press
NONTHABURI, Thailand – Southeast Asian leaders are making last-minute efforts with wealthier neighbors led by China to conclude negotiations on one of the world’s largest free-trade accords and will praise progress in talks on a nonaggression pact in disputed waters when they meet for a summit in Thailand.
Philippine Ambassador to Thailand Mary Jo Bernardo-Aragon said the Philippines was looking forward to the early conclusion of discussions and approval of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) to generate benefits to the region and its people.
The proposed free trade deal among 16 Asia-Pacific countries, Aragaon said, is expected to spur a mutually beneficial and inclusive trade environment in region.
“ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) has also created multilateral trade system. There are some negotiations now on the RCEP,” she said in a media interview at the Philippine embassy here.
“We look forward to an early conclusion of RCEP which will greatly benefit our country and the people especially when we are enjoying positive economic growth compared to other countries in the region,” she added.
But intractable differences, often hidden behind handshakes and ceremonial photo-ops, have stymied those efforts by the 10-member ASEAN, composed of the Philippines, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
President Donald Trump is skipping the flurry of meetings in a Bangkok suburb this weekend in a palpable absence that could be viewed in the region as a snub. He is sending national security adviser Robert O’Brien, who is not a member of his Cabinet, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
“President Trump is dealing with immense political troubles at home and that also plays into concerns over American wherewithal and commitment to this part of the world,” Manila-based political analyst Richard Heydarian said.
Such an absence “helps China to portray the United States as an unreliable regional hegemon” and establish a much more “China-centric” order in the region, he said.
A major development is the possible announcement of a conclusion to seven years of negotiations for free-trade pact RCEP. China is among those leading the negotiations along with ASEAN members and their dialogue partners Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, and New Zealand.
The US, which prefers bilateral trade deals, is not included. A successful deal would boost free trade in a time of protectionism and further integrate China with many of Asia’s most vibrant economies.
The talks were progressing toward a conclusion last month when new issues cropped up, which may again delay the signing to next year, Philippine Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez told reporters.
“It can still happen… if we decide on a way forward,” Lopez said, without elaborating on the disagreements, which concern technical details and rules on market access, competition, and investment.
Some countries such as India have expressed concern that the deal could flood their markets with cheap Chinese goods and undermine local manufacturers.
RCEP will be one of the biggest regional trade blocs if all 16 nations join, covering some 45 percent of the world’s population and about a third of global GDP, with projected trade of more than $10.3 trillion, or nearly 30 percent of the world total.
Trade negotiators have been trying to thresh out a number of issues and are expected to submit the outcome of their talks to the countries’ leaders during the ASEAN Summit in Thailand.
According to Aragon, ASEAN has become an important economic bloc amid improving ties with dialogue partners.
“In August 1967, the Philippines was one of the five founding fathers of ASEAN. Of course over the years ASEAN has expanded to 10 members and the economic relations between the ASEAN member states and its external trading partners have greatly enhanced the importance of ASEAN as a major economic production base which includes the Philippines,” he said.
“So it is extremely important for us – our continued membership and active participation in ASEAN,” she added.
Code of Conduct
ASEAN leaders will welcome the completion in July of the first of three rounds of discussions on a proposed “code of conduct” that aims to restrain aggressive actions in the disputed South China Sea. Territorial rifts involving China, Taiwan, and ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have emerged as the most divisive issue in recent years.
China and its ASEAN allies led by Cambodia have steadfastly refused attempts to use the annual summits as an arena to rebuke Beijing’s increasingly assertive actions, including the construction of seven islands on disputed reefs that US officials say could serve as military platforms to intimidate rival claimants.
China claims virtually the entire sea, a vital waterway for global commerce, and has opposed naval and aerial patrols by the US and its allies as American interference in an Asian problem. Beijing also regards the US concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific region as a strategy to contain China.
“We emphasized the need to maintain an environment conducive to the COC (code of conduct) negotiations, and, thus, welcomed practical measures that could reduce tensions and the risk of accidents, misunderstandings, and miscalculation,” said a draft of a summit communique, a copy of which was seen by The Associated Press.
Two Southeast Asian diplomats told the AP that Vietnam wanted the inclusion of a phrase reflecting China’s encroachments into waters where Vietnam has exclusive rights to exploit resources. China, through Cambodia, opposed any such move.