Countries taking part in talks on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership are expected to hold four more rounds of meetings, which may involve a gathering of state leaders in 2018, said a Ministry of Commerce official on Tuesday.
Since the first negotiations for the mega-trade pact were initiated in 2013, a total of 20 rounds of talks, at both the ministerial and state leader levels, have been held between 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China, South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and India.
"The negotiations have achieved steady progress in the market entry permits of goods and service trade. In terms of rule-making, progress has been made in economic and technology cooperation and small enterprises," said Zhang Shaogang, director-general of the department of international trade and economic affairs at the ministry.
"The RCEP is highly valued by the 16 involved countries. The unique element about the RCEP is that it not only includes developed countries but also the less developed ones," he said.
The slower progress of the talks, caused by a combination of technical hurdles and domestic politics, indicates a loss of development opportunities for the countries involved, according to the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council's annual survey of opinion leaders released in November.
It also pointed out that rising protectionism is considered the top risk to growth in the Asia-Pacific region.
"We respect the leading role of ASEAN, and we will coordinate with their work. We hope to find the common benefits for everyone," said Zhang. "None of the involved countries would like to set up a timetable for the RCEP talks to put themselves in a passive position. And we hope the negotiations in 2018 can achieve encouraging result."
China, as a staunch supporter of the RCEP, has long advocated an inclusive regional free trade system, and has proposed the establishment of the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific.
"This position stands in sharp contrast with Japan. It has sought to turn the Trans-Pacific Partnership－though rendered flaccid after the United States' withdrawal－into a geopolitical tool designed to counter China's influence in the region," said Xue Rongjiu, deputy director of the Beijing-based China Society for WTO Studies.
"Under such circumstances, RCEP participants should seize the opportunities offered by the Belt and Road Initiative and continue to cut trade barriers, unify standards and regulations to enable the smooth flow of goods across borders."