A late burst of activity by hundreds of trade negotiators in Singapore, including about a dozen from New Zealand, has failed to finalise the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

And that will be a particular disappointment for China, which has promoted it as an alternative to TPP – now the CPTPP – after its launch by Asean in 2012 at the Cambodia East Asia Summit.

It will be a disappointment to Singapore which is the chair of the Asean summits and every host wants to send visitors away with a special gift.

And it will be a particular disappointment for countries that wanted to thumb their noses at the United States and show that important trade deals can be done without them.


Progress had been made on the deal and a statement by the 16 leaders involved, including Jacinda Ardern, will say that.

But any dancing to Bhangra beats has well and truly been pushed out to next year, after India's election.

India is the crucial player in RCEP for many. But India is notoriously difficult to deal with - trade negotiators the world over will attest. It has a highly protected economy and its growth is not driven by exports. Trade liberalisation is not in its DNA.

Graphic: NZ Herald
Graphic: NZ Herald

New Zealand's attempts to negotiate bilaterally failed miserably.

RCEP is important to New Zealand because it will deliver a free trade deal with India by another means. New Zealand already has a free trade deal with all the other RCEP countries.

RCEP is also the means by which New Zealand will try to improve on the existing FTA it has with the 10 Asean countries, signed in 2009.

The thing that sets the alternative RCEP apart is not its high quality.

Compared to the CPTPP, RCEP is inferior in terms of tariff reductions and liberalisation of trade rules.

But its membership sets it apart, having as its leading members the two largest countries in the world, China with 1.4 billion people and India with 1.3 billion, and the world's second and third largest economies, China and Japan.

And a trade deal with those three giants involved is worth being in.

Associate Trade Minister Damien O'Connor has been in Singapore with New Zealand negotiators going at it in a bid to close the deal before the leaders landed.

The rules chapters of RCEP are common to all 16 and have been negotiated jointly.

The prickly ones are market access and they are negotiated on a bilateral basis, with the China-India one being the most important. If they had done the business, the rest would have followed.

The fact the deal has been pushed out means those two have not concluded a satisfactory bilateral deal.

If they can settle, and there are flow-on effects to the smaller players, it may be worth the wait.