16 Asia-Pacific nations begin 1st round of RCEP free trade talks

Sixteen Asia-Pacific nations including Japan and China held the first round of negotiations Thursday toward the creation of one of the world's largest free trade blocs.

During the five-day meeting through Monday in Brunei, the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and their six regional partners will discuss the scope and method of talks on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership as they aim to conclude a deal by 2015.

The RCEP, if realized, will account for over 3 trillion people, or about half of the global market, and a third of global economic output, according to the Japanese government.

In addition to a committee of senior officials, the 16 countries will launch working groups, which pertain to trade in goods, trade in services, and investment, in the Brunei capital, according to Japanese officials.

The RCEP talks began at a time of progress for other multilateral free trade negotiations, including the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, with Japan set to soon become its 12th member.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and senior government officials have said the TPP could become the foundations for the RCEP and an even greater free trade agreement called the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific.

But concluding the RCEP negotiations by 2015 does not appear to be an easy task, given that the Asia-Pacific nations are aiming for a deal that involves deeper engagement than existing ASEAN free trade agreements.

Japan, however, expects conditions of the RCEP to be more relaxed than those of the TPP, as the 16 nations would be allowed to retain certain tariffs.

The ASEAN countries are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Also involved in the RCEP talks are Japan, China, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India.

The 16 nations agreed in November last year to launch the RCEP negotiations after holding a series of meetings, starting in 2011, with fewer members.