TOKYO - Ministers from Japan, China, South Korea and 12 other Asia-Pacific countries negotiating a mega regional trade deal met Wednesday via teleconference for final-stage talks, aiming for their leaders to strike and sign an agreement this weekend.
But the deal to be reached by the members of the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership at Sunday's online summit will not include India, which has skipped all talks since late last year due to concerns about an increase in trade deficits with China.
The remaining 15 RCEP members are set to make a special arrangement so that India can smoothly return to the pact in the future.
Japanese government sources said that it will be exempted from a stipulation that RCEP signatories will not accept new entrants to the framework for a certain period of time.
Seeking safeguards, India abruptly said in November last year that it would not take part in further negotiations.
If agreed, the RCEP will be an economic bloc representing around a third of the world's gross domestic product and population, even without India.
It will be Japan's first free trade framework that includes China, its biggest trading partner, and South Korea.
Trade minister Hiroshi Kajiyama participated in the online ministerial meeting from Japan. The last round was held Oct. 14.
Conclusion of a deal to cut tariffs and establish common rules for e-commerce, trade and intellectual property will put an end to negotiations that were launched in 2013.
In the envisioned agreement, Japan will retain tariffs on its five sensitive agricultural product categories -- rice, wheat, beef and pork, dairy and sugar -- to protect domestic farmers from a potential influx of cheap imports, according to the draft of the pact.
Japan's tariff elimination rate on agricultural imports will be sharply lower than under Tokyo's trade pacts with the European Union and the 10 other members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the draft showed.
RCEP groups Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and the 10 members of ASEAN -- Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.