China calls for free trade, multilateralism



China expects to finalize negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) , the world’s largest trade deal – without the United States, in 2019, Premier Li Keqiang said Tuesday, a day after Beijing and Singapore agreed to upgrade their free trade agreement.

These latest developments underscore China’s commitment and efforts to further free trade and multilateral cooperation as the world is faced with risks to slip back to unilateralism.

THE multilateral trading system is facing mounting challenges in recent times as countries grow increasingly inward-looking and protectionist, with some blaming free trade for exacerbating domestic problems.

But amid the gloom, RCEP is an ambitious regional deal that offers to show the way for the rest of the world. It is a proposed free trade agreement (FTA) between the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and six key partners, including China, South Korea, Japan, India, Australia and New Zealand, or countries which the bloc has existing FTAs with.


“We are going to announce the completion of the substantial negotiations on RCEP and the entry into the final stage at this meeting, and China hopes to conclude the RCEP negotiations next year,” Li said in Singapore, referring to the second RCEP leaders’ meeting scheduled for Wednesday.

China, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other parties have spent six years negotiating an economic integration agreement, which covers about half of the world’s population, he said.

In the context of rising protectionism and setbacks for free trade, advancing the WTO rules-based RCEP would not only benefit people in the region, but also send the world a strong signal of upholding and promoting free trade, Li said.

RCEP is billed as an antidote to US President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda, which has seen tariffs imposed on almost half of all Chinese imports to the US – and retaliatory levies by Beijing.

Li started his official visit to Singapore on Monday. This is the first visit by a Chinese premier to Singapore in 11 years.

During the visit, Li will also attend the 21st leaders’ meeting between China and ASEAN and the 21st ASEAN-China, Japan and South Korea leaders’ meeting, respectively known as 10+1 and 10+3, as well as the 13th East Asia Summit.


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