New Delhi: Members of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), including India and China, have finalized an early-harvest “package" with the aim of concluding trade negotiations by the year-end.

Trade ministers of the 16-member grouping at the two-day Singapore ministerial that concluded on Friday, tasked negotiators to leverage on the positive momentum to expeditiously bring negotiations to a “mutually beneficial and fair conclusion", in what is being seen as a major breakthrough in the trade negotiations.

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“The ministers adopted a package of year-end deliverables developed by the trade negotiating committee and welcomed the plans to achieve the targets set out in the package. The ministers expressed the hope that completion of the package would signify the substantial conclusion of the RCEP negotiations this year," RCEP trade ministers said.

Trade minister Suresh Prabhu attended the meeting.

The RCEP trade ministers also provided guidance on specific issues elevated by the trade negotiating committee and exchanged views on the next steps toward the conclusion of negotiations, according to a joint statement issued on Friday.

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So far negotiations for four chapters have been concluded. These include customs procedures, trade facilitation and government procurement. “The ministers noted with appreciation the good traction made in the negotiations of other chapters, with some now nearing conclusion," the statement added.

The trade ministers underscored the significance of establishing the world’s largest free trade area among 16 diverse participating countries under RCEP amid escalating trade frictions and took it as a collective responsibility to uphold a global trade environment that is open, rules based, and inclusive.

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“To this end, the ministers reaffirmed the commitment to see RCEP through its conclusion and achieve a comprehensive, high-quality and mutually beneficial economic partnership agreement, notwithstanding rising uncertainties in the global trade environment," the statement added. India has been unsure of remaining in RCEP and granting greater market access because of its whopping $63 billion trade deficit with China. The steel sector is particularly concerned, as China has been dumping iron and steel products in India at a much lower price than that of the domestic industry. India has often resorted to anti-dumping measures to protect local firms from the onslaught of cheap Chinese imports.

Several government departments are against joining the RCEP trade pact. NITI Aayog member V.K. Saraswat, former chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian and former foreign secretary S. Jaishankar had cautioned against signing the deal. An informal group of ministers led by Prabhu has decided to remain engaged in RCEP, but not cede more than 86% market access.

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