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RCEP abandons year-end goal for deal

Leaders from 16 Asia-Pacific nations including Japan, China and India have effectively given up on achieving the goal of finalising their free trade deal by the end of this year, according to a joint statement issued on Monday.

In the statement released after their summit, the leaders of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) pledged to sign an agreement on creating the world’s largest free trade area in 2020, indicating the countries will continue their negotiations.

“We noted 15 RCEP Participating Countries have concluded text-based negotiations for all 20 chapters and essentially all their market access issues; and tasked legal scrubbing by them to commence for signing in 2020,” the statement said.

But “India has significant outstanding issues, which remain unsolved,” it added, suggesting that the South Asian nation and other RCEP members failed to reach agreement in key fields such as tariffs.

India is believed to be reluctant to lower its trade barriers, as the country claims that it has suffered massive and chronic trade deficits with China for many years.

If the free trade area — which would cover half of the world’s population — is put into practice, trade and investment activities among RCEP nations would intensify on the back of measures like the elimination and reduction of tariffs.

In India, however, there is concern that the deal would result in an influx of cheap agricultural and industrial products, including smartphones, from China, further increasing the trade surplus of the world’s second-biggest economy, sources said.

Covering a third of the world economy, RCEP has a history of missed deadlines with varying degrees of ambition among the 16 members. Talks began in 2013 with the initial goal of wrapping them up in 2015.

RCEP brings together Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand, as well as the Asean states — Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.


ASEAN CIVIL groups and representatives of people’s organisations will once again be denied an interface meeting with leaders during the 34th summit in Bangkok this weekend, as they failed to convene a parallel meeting, Asean officials and organisers said.

The Asean Civil Society and People Forum (ACSC/APF) was supposed to hold their meeting in the middle of this month to finalise issues and demands to be exchanged with leaders during the summit. The meeting was delayed until September.

Though they will not be permitted to discuss issues with leaders of Asean nations, the groups may be allowed to meet with senior officials of Asean, Foreign Ministry director-general of Asean Affairs, Suriya Chindawongse, said.

Representatives of three groups – Asean Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA), Asean Youth, and Asean Business Advisory Council (ABAC) – will meet with leaders on June 22.

The ACSC/APF has not managed to have an interface dialogue with leaders for three consecutive years. The last meeting between the civil society groups and Asean leaders took place during Malaysia’s chairmanship in 2015. At last year’s Asean meeting with Singapore as chair, a meeting with the People Forum was restricted financially and isolated from the leaders’ summit.

As the host country, Thailand is tasked with initiating the interface meetings between the civil society sector and leaders. It would try its best to arrange such a meeting during another summit in November, a Thai Foreign Ministry official said on condition of anonymity.

Members of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal squad install a bomb detector gate at the venue of the 34th ASEAN Summit in Bangkok, Thailand, 19 June 2019. // EPA-EFE PHOTO

Chalida Tajaroensak, director of the People Empower Foundation (PEF), one of the 2019 ACSC/APF steering committee members, said the failure this time reflected the “controlled partnership” preferences of leaders, in which they decided to instead meet with self-appointed representatives and business groups.

Regarding the summit’s refusal to meet with the group, Chalida said their organising committee had submitted the names of representatives to the Senior Officials Meeting for the Asean Socio-Cultural Community.

She said the member states failed to reach a consensus to meet with the civil society organisations (CSOs). Only the delegates of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia supported the proposed interface, while two countries rejected it and the rest were silent.

Still, with another opportunity still possible at the second summit in November, Chalida said the CSOs need to rethink their engagement strategy

“The CSOs must review how to be a partner with the states, whether street protests to pressure, or [alternatively] diplomacy, would work to effectively convey the people’s demands to the governments,” Chalida said. “In order to bridge the barrier, they must shift to people’s diplomacy.”

There are different degrees of support and confrontation between the states and CSOs in the many Asean countries, she said. Regional cross-cutting talks among the CSOs are needed in order to craft a strategy to deal with the states on the Asean stage.

There is a wide spectrum among Asean CSOs in terms of their agenda, stance and affiliations. Each state has its own way of dealing with the civil sector, including implementing registration to establish its own civil groups, known as government-organised non-governmental organisation.

The national flag of Myanmar in front of a large poster welcoming ASEAN leaders to the 34th ASEAN Summit in Bangkok, Thailand, 19 June 2019. // EPA-EFE PHOTORepresentatives of three groups – Debby Stohard from the Alternative Asean Network for Burma, an NGO working on democracy issues in Myanmar, criticised the state’s exclusion of its citizens. She noted that people in Cambodia, Vietnam and other countries are judicially and physically harassed when they speak out about unsustainable development or express opinions on the internet.

“We ask Asean governments and leaders: please check the dictionary for the meaning of ‘partnership’ – because they have not been behaving in partnership with the citizens of this region”, said Stohard in a public panel.

Rachel Arinii Judhistari, Asean programme manager of Forum-Asia, one of the ACSC/APF steering committee members, called for Asean nations to truly respect the rights of people in responding to its “people-centred” principle.

“This year the AICHR [Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights] will turn 10. Use this anniversary to advance a ‘people-centred’ Asean, where the rights of the people of Southeast Asia will be respected. “Asean aspires to be people-centred, as it has stated in its Asean 2025 blueprint. However, in reality, many CSOs are facing curtailment of civic space in their countries, which is contributing to the silencing of dissenting voices.”


NE India will be gateway to SE Asia: PM Modi in Bangkok

Modi hailed India’s ties with Thailand and talked about the similarities between the two cultures as he addressed thousands of people of Indian origin in Bangkok’s Nimibutr Stadium at the ‘Sawasdee PM Modi’ event.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Saturday India wants to strengthen its “deep friendly and historical relationship” with Thailand by transforming its northeastern region as a gateway to Southeast Asia.

Modi hailed India’s ties with Thailand and talked about the similarities between the two cultures as he addressed thousands of people of Indian origin in Bangkok’s Nimibutr Stadium at the ‘Sawasdee PM Modi’ event.

The Prime Minister said one of the key elements of his government is to strengthen the ties with ASEAN countries.

“For that, we’ve formed the Act East Policy… For the first time last year, leaders from all 10 ASEAN countries came to India to participate in India’s Republic Day Celebrations,” Modi pointed out.

He said India wants to further strengthen the ties between India and Thailand by transforming its northeastern region as a gateway to Southeast Asia.

“This part of India will give strength to both our Act East Policy and Thailand’s Act West Policy,” he said.

“Once the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway is opened, then there will be seamless connectivity between northeast India and Thailand. This will increase trade in this region as well as tourism and tradition,” he said.

Modi also talked about how India and Thailand have come together to build a relationship, including he said the flights between the two countries, especially his parliamentary constituency Varanasi.

“India and Thailand are progressing at a rapid pace, together. At least 300 flights fly between the two countries weekly. At least 18 destinations in Thailand are connected to India, and the average flight time is between two to four hours,” he said.

“A direct flight has been started from Varanasi, my constituency and the world’s oldest cultural hub, to Thailand. It has also garnered a lot of fame,” he added.

The Prime Minister also emphasised the similarities between Thailand and India.

“You are of Indian origin also because you can find familiarity in every particle of Thailand. There is a glimpse of Indianness in the way people talk, its food, in its traditions, faith and architecture,” he said amid chants of Modi, Modi.

‘Sawasdee PM Modi’ is being organised by Thai Indians along with the Indian embassy in Bangkok. “Sawasdee”, derived from Sanskrit svasti or well being, is the word Thai people use for greetings and goodbye.

“The ties between India and Thailand is not just between the two governments. Every moment and event in history has developed and broadened our relationship and taken it to new heights. These relationships are of the heart, soul, faith and spirituality,” he said.

“Thousands of years ago, ties with South East Asia developed through sea routes and our sailors then travelled thousands of miles on the waves of the sea to build bridges of prosperity and culture that still exist,” he said.

The Prime Minister talked about the massive mandate his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) received “for the first time in 60 years” in the Lok Sabha elections held in April-May to form the government for a second term.

“The transformation that India is undergoing at the moment is exactly why the people of the country chose me to become their prime servant for the second time in the Lok Sabha polls earlier this year. They blessed me with more votes than they did last time,” he said.

He had to stop his speech several times as people at the Nimibutr Stadium cheered him on while he spoke about his government’s scheme and policies, including Ayushman Bharat, which he said have benefitted millions of people in India.

“When a decision is right and is taken with the right mentality, it resonates with the entire world. Today, I can hear it in Thailand. This standing ovation from you is for the Parliament of India,” Modi said.

Before his address in Hindi, the Prime Minister also released a commemorative coin marking the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev and the Thai translation of Tamil classic ‘Tirukkural’ written by Thiruvalluvar.

Saturday’s event comes after the mega ‘Howdy, Modi!’ outreach programme in the US’ Houston on September 23 attended by more than 50,000 people. US president Donald Trump was also present at the event.

Modi is in Thailand on a three-day visit to take part in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), East Asia, and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) summits.

Prime Minister Modi will co-chair the 16th ASEAN-India summit alongside Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha on Sunday.

In a statement before his departure, the Prime Minister said that during the visit, he will also hold bilateral meetings with a number of other world leaders present in the Thailand capital for related summit meetings.

“The ASEAN-related summits are an integral part of our diplomatic calendar, and an important element in our Act East Policy. Our partnership with ASEAN is built around the key pillars of connectivity, capacity-building, commerce and culture,” he had said. (HT)