MANILA - Southeast Asian economic ministers hope to reach a "substantial conclusion" of talks for a China-backed free trade deal by the end of the year, a Filipino official said at the end of talks in the Philippine capital.
Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries and their dialogue partners, China, India, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan will submit their offers by the third week of September based on "key clear parameters" identified in Manila, said Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez.
China is pushing for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership or RCEP as the US pursues a more-inward policy under President Donald Trump, who had sought to review trade deals in the Pacific and North America.
"Not really the draft agreement, but an agreement on the broad parameters of what will be the content, the level of liberalization, the timing, percentage of the conclusion, the value added," Lopez said when asked about the year-end target.
The RCEP offers will be discussed in a separate meeting in South Korea in October, ahead of an ASEAN leaders' summit in Manila in November, Lopez said.
Lopez said negotiations involving the 10 ASEAN member-states and 6 other free trade partners "is not an easy task." The regional bloc insisted that the deal would be "ASEAN-led."
"We have to really agree on key parameters if we achieve substantial conclusion moving forward," he said.
ASEAN deputy secretary general for the economic community Lim Hong Hin stressed the importance of free trade in the face of rising anti-globalism sentiment.
"All things will be accommodated if we want to move forward, if we want to come to a swift conclusion," Lim said.
Free trade is "quite critical" for the sustainability of economic growth in the region, he said.