MERGAWATI ZULKAFAR I
Negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partner-ship (RCEP), an initiative involving the 10 Asean members and its partners – Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea – are expected to start in February.
Asean officials met here on the sidelines of the senior officials meeting yesterday expected the leaders to make the announcement when they meet at the Asean Summit which begins here tomorrow.
The RCEP, endorsed at the 19th Asean Summit in Bali last year, is aimed at consolidating Free Trade Agreements signed between Asean and its dialogue partners to ease trade procedures and boost the flow of trade and investment within the Asia-Pacific region.
Officials said the idea was to create a single FTA between Asean and its dialogue partners.
The potential is huge as it involves a single market with more three billion people and a combined GDP of about US$17tril (RM51tril).
Here, the leaders will also look at the deadline for the formation of the Asean Economic Community (AEC) by 2015 when member countries must remove all trade barriers.
While Asean is eager to move on to other issues to meet its AEC deadline and the adoption of the Asean Human Rights declaration, the nagging South China Sea dispute is also set to hog the limelight.
Asean officials are anxious to see how Cambodia, as the summit host and Asean chair, will handle the issue after the fiasco at the Asean Foreign Ministers meeting in July.
The ministers failed to issue a joint statement for the first time in 45 years after the territorial claims between China and Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam spilled into the meeting as they could not agree on the text referring to the dispute in the statement. The other non-Asean claimant country is Taiwan.
Cambodia was heavily criticised by several member countries as Phnom Penh was accused of pandering to China during the July meeting.
“As the Asean chair, Cambodia needs to play a more assertive role in ensuring cohesiveness and solidarity within Asean. This is a crucial time to show unity,” said one official.
A draft Code of Conduct (CoC) on the South China Sea has been circulated to Asean foreign ministers that comprises elements of conflict prevention and management for the maritime territorial dispute.
However, the grouping has yet to get China to sit down and negotiate on the legally binding CoC which is intended as a mechanism to implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea that Beijing signed and Asean member nations agreed to in 2002.
Asean leaders are also expected to adopt the Asean Human Rights Declaration here despite criticisms that it falls short of international standards.
Asean officials said critics must see the overall context of the declaration which took into account of cultural and religious sensitivities.
“We work on consensus and need to recognise some Asean countries have different perspectives on certain aspects of human rights.
“For example, certain member countries may be okay with gays and lesbians but for others it is a factor of religion and cultural sensivity,” said another official.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has called on Asean leaders to suspend the adoption of the first-ever Human Rights Declaration, saying it lacked transparency during the drafting process.