This week’s plans to finalize an Asia-wide trade deal at a summit in Bangkok remained uncertain after new demands raised by India in the negotiations to form the world’s largest trading bloc.
The leaders of South Asian countries had the meeting in Thailand and they are hopeful on the China-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which comprises 16 countries that account for a third of global domestic product and nearly half of the world’s population.
Following the cancellation of a press conference on Friday, there are likely to have discussions on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Bangkok. It raised questions whether ministers could reach agreement in their last formal negotiations ahead of a summit on the regional partnership on Monday.
However, host Thailand has been pushing for a preliminary deal by the end of the year. It is eager to push ahead at a time when US-China tensions threatened to slow growth in the region.
An important sticking point has been demands from India that is worried about a potential flood of Chinese imports. A person with knowledge about New Delhi’s negotiations stated, “It’s a fact India has put new demands which are difficult to meet.”
In an interview, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told Bangkok Post he is committed to ongoing RCEP negotiations but added: “opening the vast Indian market must be matched by openings in some areas where our businesses can also benefit.”
The Thai commerce minister had canceled the press briefing in order to continue the marathon negotiations late into Friday night, said another person with knowledge of the talks.
Any breakthrough on the Regional Comprehensive Partnership will boost the confidence in export-reliant Southeast Asia that has been pulled down by the US-China trade war, with growth expected to slow to its lowest in five years.
Marty Natalegawa, a former Indonesian foreign minister told sources, “The finalization of the RCEP negotiation has become a key test for ASEAN’s capacity to deliver on its often-cited centrality.”
A draft final statement for the ASEAN summit seen by Reuters said the leaders would express “deep concern over the rising trade tensions and on-going protectionist and anti-globalization sentiments”.
Diplomats hoped for a little discussion on perennial regional problems such as maritime disputes with China over the South China Sea and the plight of Rohingya refugees driven from Myanmar.
A key trading partner the United States decreased its delegation compared to those in previous years. The United States will be represented by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien. China will be represented by its premier, Li Keqiang.