MANILA — Economic ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ended their meeting on Friday, vowing to deepen and expand trade integration through regional trade partnership.
Philippine Trade and Industry Secretary Ramon Lopez, who chaired the meeting, said that the ASEAN ministers agree to "push to achieve considerable progress on the the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) to showcase ASEAN's headship in bringing about a regional partnership that integrates major economic players China, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
"The shares optimism on RCEP will mean more foreign investments and more dynamic trade and business alliances," Lopez said.
RCEP stands for a mega trade agreement designed to broaden and deepen engagements among the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and its six dialogue partners including powerhouse China.
RCEP will expand the ASEAN market from 600 million to 3.5 billion as it will include ASEAN's six dialogue partners that account for almost half of the world's population, representing a huge integrated market base.
"This expanded economic partnership is seen to shape the future of trade and economic liberation in Asia. At the backdrop of recent economic uncertainties and rising protectionism, RCEP is poised to keep the momentum of trade as an engine for regional and global economic growth," Lopez said.
RCEP aims to rationalize rules of origin by using a simplified approach to their definition. It focuses on non-tariff barriers, streamlining and harmonizing custom procedures, and making them more consistent and predictable than in existing agreements.
RCEP negotiations were launched in November 2012 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and scheduled to conclude by the end of 2015. While this deadline has passed, negotiations are expected to intensify this year that experts predict than an RCEP deal could occur in 2017.
ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Aside from China, the five other ASEAN Free Trade Agreement partners that are taking part in the negotiations are Australia, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.
Lopez expressed hope that RCEP will have a "substantial conclusion" by yearend.
The ministers also endorsed the ASEAN Trade in Services Agreement to make the service sector more transparent within the ASEAN community, Lopez said.
He said that the ministers also explored on convening regular dialogue with the private sector to highlight its business priorities and recommendations, as well as identity ways to complement existing public efforts toward taking full advantage of opportunities under the ASEAN community.