Tensions between the United States and China have given new impetus to a China-backed trade pact and there is a chance of major progress, if not final agreement, when Southeast Asian leaders meet in Bangkok this week, analysts say.
The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) could become the world’s largest free trade zone, comprising 16 countries that account for a third of global gross domestic product and nearly half the world’s population.
Progress since talks began in 2012 has been slowed by disagreements between members, such as major Indian concerns over a possible deluge of imports from China. The pact also includes the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.
Analysts said the pace of discussion on remaining issues had quickened this year, as the U.S.-China trade war sharpened concerns over both economic growth and regional security.
“We are hearing that there is light at the end of the tunnel and it is already a short tunnel,” said Tang Siew Mun, head of the ASEAN Studies Centre at the Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
“The momentum is now there for the politicians to get this done,” he told Reuters.
Thailand, which currently chairs ASEAN, said this month market access talks were 80.4% complete and members had agreed on 14 of a total of 20 chapters. Talks with RCEP members will follow the ASEAN summit, from Oct. 31 to Nov. 4, in Bangkok.