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ASEAN economic ministers to step up RCEP negotiations

Reiterating the importance of concluding the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement, economic ministers yesterday agreed to step up negotiations and break the stalemate to come up with realistic achievements that would stem the tide of trade protectionism by some of the world’s largest economies.

“At this critical juncture where there is a general slowdown in growth across the world and rising protectionist mindset, it is important for RCEP to step up and set up the example for the pursuit of freer trade,” said Philippine Lead Trade and Industry Undersecretary Ceferino S. Rodolfo, who also serves as the spokesman of the 49th ASEAN Economic Ministers Meeting and Related Meetings Chair Philippine Trade and Industry Secretary Ramon M. Lopez. The Philippines, as chair of ASEAN this year, aims to substantially conclude RCEP negotiations in time for the Leaders’ Summit in November this year and as one of the milestones of its hosting of this year’s 50th ASEAN anniversary.

Rodolfo said that 15 ministers from RCEP participating countries continued their 5th RCEP Ministerial Meeting yesterday, Sunday, afternoon here as they moved to adopt and endorse the outcomes of the 20th senior official level meetings of the Trade Negotiating Committee, and of the working groups on Trade in Goods, Trade in Services, and Investment.

‘Request and offer’

To fast track negotiations, the ministers agreed to adopt parallel discussions on the setting of target modalities for trade liberalization along with the request and offer mechanism.

Setting the target modalities for each country’s commitment to liberalize tariff lines has been contentious among RCEP participating countries as one or two countries could not agree to the earlier assumption for members to commit to liberalize 92 percent of their total tariff lines and agree to a phase out period for the remaining tariffs. Because of the focus on target modalities, negotiations have come to a stalemate.

To address this challenge, Rodolfo said, the ministers agreed to move ahead with “request and offer” mechanism wherein countries can start putting in the specific products that they can include for tariff liberalization rather than the previous focus of getting these target modalities.

“We have already proceeded action with exchange and offers so we get a clearer idea of what specific products are these,” he said stressing this is more important as countries have to commit specific tariff lines for liberalization and not just the target modalities of say 90 percent of all tariff lines.

“What the ministers have done is no longer parallel negotiation but sequential that even without any firm commitment on the target modalities, they have also started with specific products that they can offer for zero tariff.”

“We are doing this because it might happen that while substantial energy and focus are being devoted to the question of what the target modalities are, it might happen that in the request and offer negotiation we’re already covering substantial number of products for liberalization.”

For instance, he said, a country’s commitment is only to liberalize up to 50 percent but it has offered substantial specific products for zero tariffs already.

“This is a more pragmatic approach to move the process,” he pointed out.

Given the current state of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which had been mothballed following US President Trump’s withdrawal from this 21st trade bloc, the responsibility to protect and push globalization and open market lies with RCEP.

Humanitarian confab

Meanwhile, senior officials of the ASEAN will reconvene this week to discuss the progress of different outcome documents for the humanitarian development in the region.

The four-day 23rd Senior Officials Meeting for the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (SOCA) hosted by the Philippines’ Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), will open today in Tagaytay City.

DSWD currently chairs the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC).

During the 22nd SOCA and 17th ASCC Council Meeting held last March 6-9, ministers and senior officials discussed pertinent issues involving humanitarian development in the ASEAN region.

The meeting produced outcome documents that aimed to uplift the lives of the ASEAN citizens.

Senior officials from the 10 ASEAN Member States will reconvene to discuss the progress of the different outcome documents.

Source: Manila Bulletin

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