Thai trade minister says progress made in free trade pact

BANGKOK — Trade ministers from the Asia-Pacific region have made some progress toward completing a long-awaited free trade agreement, and final details are expected to be worked out later this month at talks in Vietnam, a Thai official said Tuesday.

Speaking at the end of five days of meetings in Bangkok, Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanawisit said progress had been made on technical details, market access and investment in the planned Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

It would cover goods, services, investment, economic and technical cooperation, competition and intellectual property rights.

The countries negotiating the pact include the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations and six of its dialogue partners: China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India.

If all join, it will be one of the biggest regional trading blocs, covering some 45% of the world's population and about a third of global GDP, with projected trade of more than $10.3 trillion -- almost 30% of the world total.

The hope is that a final agreement can be announced at November's combined ASEAN and East Asia summits. Working-level talks will be held Sept. 19-27 in Da Nang, Vietnam.

"Overall, we are still reaching the targets for each meeting," Jurin said. "All the meetings have made progress and give positive signs."

Negotiators have a lot of ground to cover. Coming into the Bangkok talks last Friday, there was agreement on only seven articles, less than half of the topics on the table. Articles covering crucial fields such as intellectual property rights, telecommunications and investment reportedly had yet to be concluded.

Progress in negotiating the agreement has been slow, blowing past several target dates, with 27 official negotiating rounds since the agreement was officially proposed in 2012 at an East Asia summit in Cambodia.

The pact was initially overshadowed by another planned multilateral trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, which was under negotiation since 2008. The TPP would have been anchored by U.S. membership, but President Donald Trump removed the United States shortly after taking office, which elevated the planned Southeast Asian pact's potential importance. An abbreviated version of TPP came into force last year.

Trump's commitment to bilateral deals, and the more recent trade war between the U.S. and China, lent more urgency to reaching an agreement.

"The winds of protectionism are hurting our multilateral trading system," Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said at an ASEAN summit in June.

One potential hitch has been India's reluctance to agree to the expected terms. It is the most publicly recalcitrant among the would-be partners, mainly because of fears of being swamped by exports from China if it opens its markets further.

"India also expressed their desire to see the negotiations done by November," Jurin said.

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