ASEAN host Thailand vows to complete 16-nation trade pact

Thailand is confident it can guide 16 countries in the Asia-Pacific region to sign a “mega-trade” agreement by the end of this year, said Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha as host of a leader’s summit of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Bangkok on Sunday.

“All ASEAN countries recognize the importance of completing the negotiations by the end of this year amid rising protectionism and trade tensions,” Prayut told a press conference at the conclusion of the two-day summit.

The trade agreement would be the largest multi-lateral trade deal in history. It would connect the 16 countries of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which is composed of the ten countries of ASEAN and Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand.

The grouping has a population of over 3 billion and accounts for 39 percent of global gross domestic product. In 2018, trade between the 16 countries amounted to roughly a third of all global trade.

ASEAN has individual free trade agreements with the six countries. The RCEP would connect all 16 in one free trade area. It would also raise the profile of ASEAN as a rising force with greater influence in global trade and the global economy.

The agreement consists of 20 proposed chapters, and the countries have reached agreement on seven of them. Prayut reiterated that Thailand would devote its diplomatic and negotiating skills to forging consensus on the remaining 13 chapters within 2019.

Thailand is the chair country of ASEAN in 2019 and concluding a successful RCEP agreement would be a milestone for the region and a tremendous achievement for the Kingdom and its term as leader of the group.

“The RCEP will enhance the centrality of the ASEAN region, connecting countries in the Indian subcontinent with those in the Asia-Pacific region, acting effectively as the center of Asia,” Prayut said.

As the summit closed, trade officials headed to Melbourne, Australia, where the 16 RCEP countries will meet from June 25 to July 3 to resolve outstanding issues.