KUALA LUMPUR – Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed has done Malaysia proud as chair of ASEAN by helping 16 economies achieve a major breakthrough in negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
After nine rounds of talks, the international trade and industry minister’s quiet diplomacy helped broker a consensus on modalities for RCEP at their meeting here yesterday held on the sidelines of the 47th ASEAN Economic Ministers Meeting.
Mustapa managed to get ASEAN and its six partners to agree to eliminate 65 per cent of tariff lines when RCEP is enforced with aspirations to push it up to 80 per cent after a decade.
The RCEP is a free trade agreement being negotiated by the 10 ASEAN members, China, Australia, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and India.
Besides having almost half of the world’s population, RCEP economies’ combined output last year stood at US$22.7 trillion which accounts for about 29.3 per cent of the world output.
Against such a backdrop, Mustapa’s exemplary leadership in narrowing differing positions among negotiating countries takes on added significance for RCEP offers immense potential as a single market.
Through break out sessions, Mustapa, who is fondly referred to as “Tok Pa” by the Malaysian media was able to unlock major difficulties, paving the way for officials to get down to substantive market access negotiations.
Approached for his comments, ASEAN Deputy Secretary-General Dr Lim Hong Hin described Mustapa as having done a “brilliant job” in being able to sit down with certain economies with different positions and reach a consensus.
“We have had a lot of discussions on the modalities without much progress which is why without his (Mustapa) chairmanship yesterday when RCEP had their meeting, we couldn’t have resolved this and arrived at this decision.
Undoubtedly, Mustapa displayed cool diplomacy in subtly reminding them that the mandate to establish RCEP came from their leaders, hence the vital need to reach consensus.
“To put the RCEP in a different perspective, 16 passengers are on board the train and it has left the station (and) we want to make sure that when we reach the destination, there are 16 passengers getting off the train.”
“Everybody was very happy including the private sector and the dialogue partners,” said an extremely delighted Lim, who said he was looking forward for greater progress at the next RCEP negotiations in Busan this October.
With the minister’s intervention in urging his fellow ministers to demonstrate collective will to move the process and negotiations forward, officals can now get down to working out the technical details.
With the agreement on the modalities, working groups would now look at the tariff schedules of respective economies, the products they want to offer for immediate tariff reduction which they couldn’t do so without consensus on the modality.
This also means they can also now submit their reservation list of products and services as well as initial offers, legal texts, market access, trade in goods, services and investments.
There are about 10 working groups and five sub-groups, which include goods, services, investment, rules of origin, customs, standard procurement system, competition, intellectual property rights, movement of people, dispute settlement as well as financial services.
Surely, Mustapa’s astute handling of tough negotiations and even tougher positions given that sometimes national positions cannot be compromised is highly commendable and a feather in the cap for Malaysia as chair of ASEAN, for which Malaysians can be proud of.