Participating in the effort, which would create the world's largest free-trade zone accounting for more than 25 percent of the world economy, were the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN, industrial giants China, Japan and South Korea, along with India, Australia and New Zealand. China and Japan are already the world's second- and third-largest economies after the United States.
The 10 ASEAN members are Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Brunei, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam. The RCEP would be another step in widening the Asia-Pacific region into a tariff-free zone.
U.S. President Barack Obama, whose administration has made a policy pivot toward the Asia-Pacific region, was visiting Cambodia Tuesday on the last leg of his three-nation Asian tour that included Thailand and Myanmar. Obama was taking part in the U.S.-ASEAN and East Asia Summits.
Japan's Kyodo News reported Tuesday the nations involved in RCEP were expected to declare their intention to start negotiations next year and complete them by 2015.
However, the task would be monumental given the diverse backgrounds of the nations and the difference among some of them. For example, India and China, whose combined populations alone are more than 2.5 billion, have yet to resolve their border dispute over which they fought a war in 1962. Relations, however, have significantly improved since then.
The RCEP effort is taking place at the same time when the United States is involved in a similar free-trade initiative called the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP among Asian and Western Hemisphere countries of the United States, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Peru, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei, Canada and Mexico. Japan also may join in the TPP initiative.
In the case of the ASEAN-plus-Six RCEP, Kyodo quoted a Japanese trade ministry official as saying while the 2105 deadline for ending the talks may be "ambitious," Japan would be willing to play a leading role in the multilateral negotiations.
Kyodo said Japan would benefit much from the RCEP because of its parts supply network in Southeast Asia and India. The official was quoted as saying Japan is also keen on widening access to the Chinese and Indian markets. Japan already is part of the Japan-China-South Korea trilateral free-trade setup.
Kyodo said Japan has said it will promote all three frameworks simultaneously, although it has yet to announce participation in the TPP negotiations.
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