PHNOM PENH — The world’s proposed biggest free trade agreement was dealt a blow on Monday when India made a last minute but unsurprising withdrawal from seven-year-old negotiations during a series of weekend meetings of Asian governments in Bangkok. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, would have encompassed all ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. It also would have made for the world’s biggest trade deal measured by population and factoring in the combined gross domestic products (GDPs) of the putative signatories, though India’s withdrawal could see it drop below the Canada-Mexico-United States deal formerly known as NAFTA in combined GDP. India would have been the third largest economy in the tariff-reducing trade deal.
SINGAPORE — With the US and China squaring up over trade, getting the 16-country Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) signed by the end of the year seems increasingly important for the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). That urgency has been sharpened by US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), now an 11-country deal rebranded as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) after being signed in Chile in March. Singapore’s prime minister clearly wanted to get a message across when hosting the ASEAN summit at the weekend. “The fact is that we do not have a TPP,” Lee Hsien Loong told journalists after the meeting. “We have a Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has made it more urgent that we proceed with this [RCEP].”
SINGAPORE — If China and the United States continue their charge into a full-on trade war, few regions will be as vulnerable to the resulting economic turbulence as Southeast Asia. That’s why the 10 governments of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in Singapore this week are hashing out ideas about how the region can duck any shrapnel if the world’s two biggest economies keep firing protectionist salvos at each other. “Considering that China and the U.S. are ASEAN’s first and third trading partner respectively, the early exchange of blows between Washington and Beijing would be watched nervously across all ASEAN capitals,” said Tang Siew Mun, head of the ASEAN Studies Centre at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a Singapore-based research organization.
JAKARTA — Stalled efforts by the U.S. and European Union to forge a trans-Atlantic trade pact will remain on ice for the foreseeable future — regardless of the outcome of the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election, according to the EU’s agriculture commissioner. Failure to finalize the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership pact reflects growing protectionist sentiment in both the U.S. and Europe, and mirrors problems besetting its U.S.-Asian counterpart, the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. Negotiations on the TTIP will not resume until the new U.S. administration — led by Democrat Hillary Clinton or her Republican rival Donald Trump — settles into office, said Phil Hogan, the European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development. “These are on hold at the moment until we know what the new policy position of the U.S. will be,” Hogan said on Tuesday in Jakarta, on the final leg of an EU trade mission to Asia. “We have had a lot of political rhetoric from both candidates, probably to a greater extent from Mr. Trump who has expressed himself as anti-trade, Mrs. Clinton has said less than positive things about trade as well.”
DONG NAI, Vietnam — Pham Duy Quang made a life-changing decision 15 years ago after growing cashew nuts and coffee since the mid-1970s on two hectares of farmland in the rolling countryside 80km north of Ho Chi Minh City. It was then that the former South Vietnamese soldier tore out his coffee and cashew plants, and replanted the fields with pepper. He believed peppercorns would prove to be a more lucrative crop and would make the four-year wait for his first harvest worthwhile. “It was not an easy start. When we started growing pepper, the Vietnamese government did not have any support program for these agricultural products. Sometimes, our pepper crops were lost due to fake fertilizer and pesticides, disease and bad weather. We had to find our own way and learn from experience after years of growing them,” said Pham, who is 63. Despite the years of trial, error and disappointment, it turned out that Pham made the right decision.
HO CHI MINH CITY – Local and foreign businesses here are closely watching how the newly anointed Communist Party of Vietnam leadership handles recently agreed trade deals with the United States and the European Union. In December 2015, Vietnam became the second member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations after Singapore to sign a free trade agreement with the EU. The announcement came a month after Vietnam was named as one of 12 countries accepted in the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, which member countries will formally sign in New Zealand on Feb. 4. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, seen as a non-ideological pro-business type of communist, made a strong challenge for the party leadership during the Jan. 20-28 CPV congress in Hanoi, losing out to incumbent leader Nguyen Phu Trong. But Dung’s tenure saw Vietnam make a start on a needed transition, from an economy centered on low-cost manufacturing to high-tech and services industries, particularly in and around the country’s biggest city and commercial hub, Ho Chi Minh City. Tran Nhan, a client solutions manager at Glandore Systems Vietnam Co., a technology company that provides online human resources services in Ho Chi Minh City’s outskirts, said there were lots of jobs in Vietnam for skilled graduates in information technology. “Young Vietnamese generally feel optimistic about our country and about our chances of finding a good job,” she said.