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May 23, 2017

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Ministers work out details of trade pact

ASIAN trade ministers met yesterday to hammer out the terms of a massive China-led pact that has taken center stage as Washington pulls away from regional free trade deals in favor of bilateral agreements.

The 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is poised to become the largest free trade agreement in the world, covering about half of its population.

It notably excludes the United States, which had been leading another regional trade pact — the Trans-Pacific Partnership — until US President Donald Trump abruptly abandoned it in January after calling it a “job killer.”

At a meeting in Hanoi, the 19th time RCEP negotiators have met, the rhetoric in favor of free trade stood in stark contrast to Trump’s “America First” campaign speeches.

“In the context that protectionism is emerging in a number of major economies in the world, we believe that the conclusion of the RCEP Agreement negotiations will convey a clear and consistent message of the opening-up and economic integration-enhancing policy of the countries in the region,” said Vietnam’s Trade Minister Tran Tuan Anh.

Apart from China, the planned RCEP pact would group the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

The deal has gained attention since the US pullout from the TPP, which was billed as the world’s biggest trade pact when it was signed in February 2016 following years of negotiations.

Under then-US President Barack Obama it was sold to American allies as a unique opportunity to seize the initiative on worldwide trade.

On Sunday in Hanoi, the 11 remaining TPP nations vowed to resuscitate the deal without the US. They are eager to lock in future free trade and strengthen labor and environmental rights despite the loss of the world’s No. 1 economy.

RCEP is a more modest deal with lower and more limited regulatory standards.

China is also pushing its global infrastructure and investment drive the One Belt, One Road initiative, which aims to revive ancient land and sea trade routes.


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