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Asia-Pacific nations hit ‘historic milestone’ with world’s biggest trade deal

Asia-Pacific nations hit ‘historic milestone’ with world’s biggest trade deal

Ten members the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and five other Asia-Pacific countries, including regional leader China, have inked the world’s largest free-trade pact that covers nearly a third of global economy.

The long-discussed agreement, officially known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), was signed on the sidelines of the annual ASEAN summit on Sunday. The meeting was virtual this year due the coronavirus outbreak.

“The signing of the RCEP Agreement is a historic event as it underpins ASEAN’s role in leading a multilateral trade agreement of this magnitude, despite global and regional challenges and eight years of negotiations,” said the secretary-general of the bloc, Dato Lim Jock Hoi.

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It took the Asian nations seven years to hammer out the accord, which will now have to be ratified by the signatories in order to come into force. It covers some 2.2 billion people with a combined market size of $26.2 trillion or 30 percent of the world’s gross domestic product. The agreement aims to reduce or remove tariffs on a wide range of goods and is said to give the economies a much-needed boost to recover from the pandemic. Apart from setting trade rules, it covers also other spheres, such as services, investment, e-commerce and copyright.

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The RCEP is often compared to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal that was torn apart shortly after President Donald Trump took office. Trump has skipped ASEAN summits for three year in a row, drawing criticism from some business groups. 

The mega trade pact was initially supposed to involve 16 countries in the Asia Pacific region, but last year India backed out of negotiations amid mounting concerns over cheap imports that may flood the country, especially from China. However, the door remains open for India to join the agreement. Ahead of Sunday’s summit, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said that Tokyo would support broadening the deal, including India’s possible return.

The agreement comes amid escalating trade tensions between two signatory countries, Australia and China, with the latter seen to be restricting Australian imports. It is not clear whether Beijing will cancel its latest tariffs and restrictions, which Canberra says disrupted trade flows, but Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said the deal signals that the two nations are “able to continue as partners in the RCEP agreement.”

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