HANOI — After eight years of negotiations, Asia-Pacific nations finally signed the world's biggest free-trade agreement on Sunday at a virtual summit hosted in Hanoi, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said on Sunday.

"I am very pleased that, after eight years of negotiations full of difficulties, today we end negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and officially sign it during the 37th ASEAN Summit," Phuc said at an ASEAN summit on Sunday.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, covers 2.2 billion people and 29% of global economic output.

The world's biggest trade agreement includes 10 ASEAN member states — Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei — along with Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea.

"Since the beginning of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has spread to more than 200 countries and territories, igniting challenges in socio-economic and political environments and reducing the mobility of trade and investment flows globally," Phuc said at an ASEAN summit on Sunday.

"Since the beginning of this year, we have witnessed efforts by various parties in resolving existing issues in negotiations." Phuc added.

Once in place, RCEP will reduce tariffs, set common trade rules and facilitate supply chains. The trade agreement will cover everything from trade, services, investment, e-commerce, telecommunications and copyright.

Jeffrey Wilson, Research Director at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said on Twitter on Sunday that RCEP will fundamentally remake the economic, strategic and institutional architectures of the Indo-Pacific, which will prove vital in recovering from the coronavirus pandemic.

"By providing a single set of economic rules," he wrote, "its 15 members will prioritize integration amongst themselves. It will also change the calculus of many governments towards U.S.-China decoupling."

Vietnamese Prime Minister Phuc also said in his speech on Sunday that the signing of RCEP in Hanoi sends "a strong message affirming ASEAN's leading role in supporting multilateral trading systems."

The Australian government, meanwhile, will use the trade pact as an opportunity to strengthen relations with China, which have been tense recently, and will meet with Chinese ministers once in-person meetings resume next year, the Sun-Herald newspaper reported on Sunday before the signing.

"It's a hugely symbolically significant agreement, coming at a time of global trade uncertainty," Trade Minister Simon Birmingham told the Sun-Herald.

"It is crucial that partners like China, as they enter into new agreements like this, deliver not only on the detail of such agreements, but act true to the spirit of them," he said.

Relations between China and Australia have become increasingly strained this year, after Canberra supported U.S. calls for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

Previously, the agreement hinged on India, yet New Delhi remained reluctant to open up Indian markets as much as the deal proposed. Once India withdrew from negotiations at the end of 2019, the path forward for the trade agreement cleared.

ASEAN leaders have said they still intend to expand trade with India despite the country leaving RCEP.

Before finalizing the agreement, 31 rounds of negotiations and 18 ministerial meetings took place over an eight-year period since 2012. Self-imposed deadlines for the deal were missed on six occasions.


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