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15 Asian countries agree to terms of RCEP free trade deal

Participating countries have concluded negotiations for all 20 chapters and essentially all market access issues

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China's Premier Li Keqiang (right) with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (centre) next to New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern at the photo session during the 3rd RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) Summit.

Bangkok

FIFTEEN Asian countries agreed to terms on Monday for what could be the world's biggest trade pact, they said in a statement, but India delayed its decision on joining because of significant differences over tariffs and other issues.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is backed by China and also brings in the 10-member Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean), Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

Participating countries met in Bangkok alongside a meeting of Southe-ast Asian leaders.

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"We noted 15 RCEP Participating Countries have concluded text-based negotiations for all 20 chapters and essentially all their market access issues," the statement from the leaders said, to allow for signing next year.

"India has significant outstanding issues, which remain unresolved . . . India's final decision will depend on satisfactory resolution of these issues," it said.

The United States-China trade war has given new impetus to years of discussions on the trade bloc.

But India decided not to agree to it as it stands due to differences over tariffs, its trade deficit with other countries and non-tariff related barriers, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quoted as saying.

"Present form of the RCEP Agreement does not fully reflect the basic spirit and agreed guiding principles of RCEP," Mr Modi was quoted saying by Indian public broadcaster Prasar Bharati News Services in a tweet. "It does not address satisfactorily India's outstanding issues and concerns."

India has been worried that the agreement, which requires the gradual elimination of tariffs, would open its markets to a flood of cheap Chinese goods and agricultural produce from Australia and New Zealand that would harm local producers.

China, a champion of the RCEP, said earlier that 15 members had agreed to move ahead without India, while leaving the door open for it to join a deal that has been given new impetus by the United States-China trade war.

Despite a message of support from US President Donald Trump to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), regional countries noted that Washington had downgraded its delegation for the annual Asian gathering.

South-east Asian countries hoped to announce at least provisional agreement on the 16-nation trade bloc, which would account for a third of global gross domestic product and nearly half the world's population.

But demands raised recently by India meant negotiations among ministers went late into the night.

New impetus to complete the deal has come from the trade war, which has knocked regional growth.

One advantage for South-east Asian countries of including relative heavyweight India in the trade pact would be less domination by China.

Diplomatic and security calculations in South-east Asia have shifted under the Trump administration.

And the U.S. decision to send a lower level delegation to the back-to-back East Asian Summit and US-Asean Summit this year has raised regional concerns that it can no longer be relied on as a counterweight to China's increasing might.

Because of the downgrade in the US delegation, officials from only three of the 10 regional countries joined the usual US-Asean meeting.

US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told a business meeting on the sidelines of the summit that the administration of US President Donald Trump was "extremely engaged and fully committed" to the region.

White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien brought a personal message from Mr Trump offering to host a meeting of South-east Asian leaders in the United States.

But diplomats and analysts said the message from Washington was clear. REUTERS

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