Mustapa: RCEP to be substantially completed by 2017

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This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on December 9, 2016.


HANOI: Negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a proposed free trade agreement (FTA) involving 16 nations that is becoming increasingly important to Malaysia amid the likely collapse of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), should be “substantially” completed by end-2017, its top trade official said.

“There are some challenges, of course, and we have extended the deadline by a few times already, but we’re all working very hard to make sure that negotiations will be substantially completed by the end of next year,” International Trade and Industry (Miti) Minister Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed told reporters yesterday at the start of a three-day business mission here. He had earlier chaired a Malaysia-Vietnam business roundtable meeting.

“We’ve already lined up a few meetings for the whole of next year, both at the official and ministerial levels, and that indicates our commitment to complete the process,” he added.

The China-led RCEP involves all 10 members of Asean as well as Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand, apart from China. US President-elect Donald Trump said on Nov 21 that the US will withdraw from the TPP on the first day of his presidency and instead pursue FTAs on a bilateral basis.

With the possible collapse of the TPP, Mustapa said Malaysia would be open to having bilateral FTAs with countries that it doesn’t already have such agreements with, such as Canada and Mexico. “These are some of the alternatives we are exploring going forward,” he said.

The US-led TPP, which had advanced under President Barrack Obama’s administration, involves just four Asean members — Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore and Brunei — and eight other countries, including Canada, Mexico and Chile.

Mustapa led a 40-strong delegation to the Vietnamese capital comprising businessmen who are members of the Asean Business Club and Kuala Lumpur Business Club (KLBC), to explore further trade and investment opportunities between the two countries. The visit includes making a courtesy call on Vietnam President Tran Dai Quang.

Mustapa also launched Miti ’s Hanoi office yesterday, its fourth overseas office in Asean after Bangkok, Jakarta and Singapore. Today, he will officiate CIMB Group Holdings Bhd’s first Vietnamese bank branch here.

Bilateral trade between Malaysia and Vietnam has grown over the years, from just US$2.2 billion in 2005 to US$9.3 billion in 2015. Vietnam was Malaysia’s 13th-largest trading partner last year. Within Asean, Vietnam was Malaysia’s 4th-largest trading partner, export destination and source of imports from 2012 to 2015.

Meanwhile, Malaysia was Vietnam’s 10th-largest trading partner in 2015, 10th-largest export destination and eighth-largest source of imports.

In terms of investment, up until September 2016, Malaysia was the seventh-largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI) for Vietnam, with cumulative FDI at US$12 billion in 547 projects in various sectors. Major companies with investments here include Petronas, Berjaya Group and Gamuda Bhd.

Vietnam’s deputy minister of industry and trade, Do Thang Hai, said the cooperation between Malaysia and Vietnam had not been cultivated fully and that there were areas that could be further tapped into, such as the energy, electricity, oil and gas, mineral exploration, automotive, heavy machinery and food processing sectors.

Gross domestic product (GDP) growth in Vietnam has averaged more than 6.2% from 2000 to 2015. With one of the fastest-growing GDP in the region, Vietnam has the potential to be the next Asian “tiger”, said KLBC president Tengku Datuk Seri Zafrul Aziz, who is also group chief executive officer of CIMB Group.

Also present at the business roundtable and Miti Hanoi launch were Malaysian Ambassador to Vietnam Mohd Zamruni Khalid, Asean Business Advisory Council chairman Tan Sri Munir Majid and CIMB Group chairman Datuk Seri Nazir Razak.