Asian countries held conclusive talks on what could be the world's biggest trade pact and there will be an announcement of success at a summit in Bangkok, despite doubts raised by India, the Thai hosts said on Monday.
But China, a champion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), said 15 members had agreed to move ahead without India, while leaving the door open for it to join a deal that has been given new impetus by the United States-China trade war.
Despite a message of support from U.S. President Donald Trump to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), regional countries noted that Washington had downgraded its delegation for the annual Asian gathering.
Southeast Asian countries hoped to announce at least provisional agreement on the 16-nation trade bloc, which would account for a third of global gross domestic product and nearly half the world's population.
But demands raised recently by India meant negotiations among ministers went late into the night. The bloc includes the 10 ASEAN members plus China, South Korea, Japan, India, Australia and New Zealand.
Thai Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanawisit told reporters that the 16 countries had reached agreement and would make a statement later on Monday - while acknowledging that some details still needed to be sorted out.
He said the plan was to sign the deal next year, under Vietnam's chairmanship of ASEAN.
But Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng said 15 countries had decided to move ahead first.
"The text based negotiations have been completed and issues of market access have been essentially concluded," he said. "Whenever India is ready they are welcome to come on board."
An Indian official with close knowledge of talks said not everything had been resolved and discussions were still going on.
Trade war impetus
New impetus to complete the deal has come from the trade war, which has knocked regional growth, but India fears a potential flood of Chinese imports and officials with knowledge of the negotiations said India had raised late demands.
One advantage for Southeast Asian countries of including relative heavyweight India in the trade pact would be less domination by China.
Diplomatic and security calculations in Southeast Asia have shifted under the Trump administration.
And the U.S. decision to send a lower level delegation to the back-to-back East Asian Summit and U.S.-ASEAN Summit this year has raised regional concerns that it can no longer be relied on as a counterweight to China's increasing might.
Because of the downgrade in the U.S. delegation, officials from only three of the 10 regional countries joined the usual U.S.-ASEAN meeting.
U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told a business meeting on the sidelines of the summit that the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump was "extremely engaged and fully committed" to the region.
White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien brought a personal message from Trump offering to host a meeting of Southeast Asian leaders in the United States.
He also condemned Chinese "intimidation" in the South China Sea, where several regional states reject China's sweeping maritime claims and complain that Beijing is illegally stopping them from exploiting their energy resources and fishing grounds.
But diplomats and analysts said the message from Washington was clear.
"Doubts have been raised in a more serious way about the Trump administration engaging and this may also play into the hands of other superpowers in pushing their own agendas," said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a former Thai national security adviser.