PETALING JAYA: The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) could be concluded as early as next year, says International Trade and Industry Ministry Asean Economic Integration Division former senior director Datuk P. Ravidran Palaniappan.
He said there had been 24 rounds of negotiation and some chapters had been concluded.
"The remaining chapters, which are related to goods and market access, are also nearing conclusion. The negotiation has been ongoing for five years.
"We have to conclude the negotiation soon and I am hopeful that will be next year," he said at the International Forum on New Inclusive Asia here on Friday (Dec 7).
Palaniappan, who served as the chair of the working group on services for the RCEP agreement, was one of the speakers for the panel discussion on "China-Malaysia and Asean Relations in The New Era".
Negotiations for RCEP have been ongoing since 2013.
Asean is the main driver behind RCEP, which also includes Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.
The negotiations centred on lifting tariffs and liberalising trade and services, including economic and technical cooperation.
Palaniappan also said RCEP was similar to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.
"They are equally comprehensive. It's just that for RCEP, we are not touching on labour or environment issues," he said.
He said in terms of market size and population, RCEP accounted for about 50% of the world population.
"It is a significant free trade agreement. It will have a transformational impact not only on the countries involved, but the whole of Asia," he said.
RCEP member states accounted for a total gross domestic product (GDP) of US$25.4 trillion (RM106 trillion) or 31.8% of the global GDP.
Palaniappan also reminded Asean members to be prepared and strengthen themselves to be a solid economic community in order to compete when the free trade agreement takes effect.
"There are still many non-tariff barriers within Asean, restrictions on the mobility of labour and a shortage of skilled workers," he said.