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More partners keen to join RCEP: Singapore's chief negotiator

THOUGH the ink has barely dried on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), several parties are already interested in joining the trade pact, said Singapore's chief negotiator Sulaimah Mahmood.

And while India's departure from negotiations last November caused "the greatest pain", it is welcome back at any time, she added, in an interview with the Ministry of Trade and Industry's negotiating team.

Eight years in the making, the RCEP was signed on Nov 15 between the 10 Asean member states, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand.

Said Ms Sulaimah: "We actually have queries already, from some partners asking 'Can we join?'" The pact's Trade Negotiating Committee (TNC) will have to discuss the criteria and process for admitting new members.

One question is whether new members should first have a free trade agreement (FTA) with Asean. Hong Kong, for instance, has expressed interest and already has such an FTA.

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"In the case of Hong Kong, because they're already a partner, when they knock at the door, they definitely would be considered positively," she added. "But Canada, for instance, is looking at an FTA with Asean. Should they do that first, or go straight to joining the RCEP? Those are the issues that the TNC will be discussing."

Perhaps the largest setback for the trade pact was India's withdrawal at the RCEP Summit on Nov 4, 2019, right as negotiations on all 20 chapters were concluded.

Negotiating team member Giselle Lee recalled how, up till very late the night before, India was still in the room. While market issues remained a sticking point, the understanding was that all partners would continue to push forward, she added.

The next day, the leaders welcomed the conclusion of the 20 chapters, expressing hopes that the RCEP could be signed in 2020. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was one of the last to speak - and dropped the bombshell that India would not join.

"There were countries that were very keen to have India in the (RCEP). So this then presented another problem, at least for Singapore - we were worried that this might be a domino effect that led other countries to pull out, because they didn't see the same benefits that we could see even without India," said Ms Lee.

India was still invited to all the RCEP meetings in 2020, and is welcome to rejoin at any time, said Ms Sulaimah. Prospective new members will have to wait 18 months after the RCEP enters into force, but India will not have to. "So that's how much the fifteen of us believe in the importance of India in the RCEP. We really want India to be part of this agreement."

Some unflattering comparisons have been drawn between the RCEP and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) - which became the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership after the United States withdrew - with the former said to be less ambitious.

"When we embarked on the RCEP, already there was recognition that in terms of the level of ambition, it would be very difficult to match the TPP, primarily because of the composition of the membership of the agreement," acknowledged Ms Sulaimah. "We need to understand that for some of the least developed economies, they are already doing their best to try and match the level of ambition that we want."

For instance, while some RCEP partners wanted a more ambitious e-commerce chapter, some other partners did not even have domestic e-commerce regulations yet. It was thus better to conclude the chapter and leave open the option of improving it in future reviews, rather than stalling, she added.

Team member Regina Tan, who worked on the e-commerce chapter, highlighted that transitional arrangements were made to accommodate less-developed economies - they may only have to fulfil certain obligations after a set number of years, giving them time to put in domestic regulatory regimes first.

"It's a matter of understanding that there are real constraints and then trying to work through those constraints, and at some point we all get there together," she said.

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