PM Lee urges 'realistic' expectations

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Leaders of all 16 countries in RCEP trade deal have first sit-down meeting since 2012

Leaders of countries discussing a mega free trade deal said at a meeting yesterday that for negotiations to succeed, member expectations had to be adjusted.

The Asean-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) includes Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.

But its conclusion has been delayed repeatedly.

Observers hope that the recent revival of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) over the weekend, in the form of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the TPP, will give RCEP talks a nudge.

The two pacts are sometimes seen as rivals, even though seven TPP members are also in the RCEP, and leaders have described both initiatives as building blocks towards a wider Asia-Pacific free trade area.

Yesterday's RCEP Summit in Manila was the first sit-down meeting between leaders of all 16 countries in the trade deal since the launch of negotiations in November 2012, noted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, which will be the Asean chair next year.

He thanked Indonesia for its leadership role on the pact - the country has been coordinating RCEP talks - adding that all countries have worked hard to make progress.

"Nevertheless, negotiations have taken longer than expected," he said, noting members had missed three deadlines for conclusion.

This is the RCEP's fifth year of negotiations.

The deal was targeted to have been concluded in 2015.

This was pushed back to last year and then to this year.

It is not simply another trade agreement but a trade agreement that could provide the size and scale to unleash new growth potential... Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte

Substantial work still needs to be done and the challenges are complex, said Mr Lee in a frank assessment of the difficulties lying ahead.

Opening the summit, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte noted the RCEP represented almost half the world's population and over a third of global economic output.

"It is not simply another trade agreement but a trade agreement that could provide the size and scale to unleash new growth potential and write the new rules of the game of the international trade order," Mr Duterte said.

"But rewriting the global economic landscape requires us to urgently bring the negotiations to a close, and to create deeper trade linkages that would demonstrate our commitment to free and open markets."

Mr Lee said there was a need to balance the sensitivities and political constraints of each RCEP party.

"We have to find common landing zones even though many RCEP Parties do not have FTAs with each other," he said.

"We need renewed mandates to recalibrate the level of ambition to realistic levels."

Mr Lee also urged parties to engage with one another in good faith and in a frank and open manner. Creative solutions are needed, such as addressing sensitivities in smaller groups if needed.

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