Poonam Singh

Hanoi:  China and 14 other Asian countries have agreed to form the world's largest free trade bloc with nearly a third of all economic activity.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, was signed virtually on Sunday on the sidelines of the annual summit of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Participating countries include the 10 member countries of the ASEAN and China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, accounting for around 30 per cent of the global population, the world's gross domestic product (GDP) and global trade, reports Xinhua news agency.

The signing of the deal is "a victory of multilateralism and free trade", Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said Sunday via video link.

"The signing of the RCEP is not only a landmark achievement of East Asian regional cooperation, but also a victory of multilateralism and free trade," Li said.

The global and regional economies are facing huge obstacles and challenges caused by not only by Covid-19 pandemic but also the decreased global trade, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said at the fourth RCEP summit held before the signing ceremony.

The conclusion of the negotiations of the RCEP will "send a strong message of ASEAN's leading role in supporting the multilateral trade system, helping to create a new trading structure in the region, facilitating trade sustainably, developing the disrupted supply chains and supporting post-pandemic recovery", he said.

The RCEP agreement will accelerate the building of the ASEAN Economic Community and thereby allow ASEAN to become dynamic and strong partners in promoting cooperation for shared prosperity, he said later at the signing ceremony held via video conference.

Malaysia's Minister of International Trade and Industry Mohamed Azmin Ali said the signing of the RCEP agreement will be a testament to the world on the efforts to strengthen the multilateral trading system and uphold the development agenda in the World Trade Organization (WTO).

"It will also demonstrate to the world that ASEAN together with the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement partners say 'no' to protectionism and 'yes' to free trade," he said.

The RCEP is "a hugely symbolically significant agreement, coming at a time of global trade uncertainty," said Australian Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Simon Birmingham.

"It says in a really powerful and tangible way that our region, which has been the driver of global economic growth, is still committed to the principles of trade, openness and ambition," he told the media on Sunday.

The signing of the RCEP deal came after more than 30 rounds of negotiations, which were launched in November 2012, as well as a number of specific leaders' and ministerial meetings between the participating countries.

The signing ceremony took place during the ongoing 37th ASEAN Summit and related summits, from November 12 to Sunday via video conferences.

Founded in 1967, ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

(With IANS Inputs)