MANILA - Southeast Asian economic ministers on Sunday agreed to move a China-backed free trade deal forward by identifying "realistically achievable" talking points by the end of the year, a Filipino official said.
The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is an "important engagement" for Manila as the resulting bloc would account for 61 percent of total trade and 52 percent of the total export market, said trade undersecretary Ceferino Rodolfo.
At a weekend meeting in the Philippines ahead of the leaders' summit in November, the ministers said they were "hard at work to resolve key outstanding issues in the negotiations," according to Rodolfo.
An outline of "negotiation areas viewed as realistically achievable by the end of the year" will be drawn out, he said.
"At this critical juncture where there is a general slowdown in growth across the world and rising protectionist mindset, it is important for RCEP to step up and set the example for the pursuit of free trade," Rodolfo said.
"RCEP is the only game in town given the state of the current negotiations on the TPP," he said, referring to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade deal which was abandoned by US President Donald Trump.
Also during one of the meetings on Sunday, the Philippines secured support from Japan to help small and medium businesses cope with automation, he said.