The completion of the world's largest trade deal -- backed by Beijing and excluding the United States -- has been pushed back to next year, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said Tuesday, after Asia-Pacific trade ministers failed to agree key terms at a Singapore summit.
The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), covering half the world's population, is billed as an antidote to President Donald Trump's "America First" agenda, which has seen tariffs imposed on almost half of all Chinese imports to the US -- and retaliatory levies by Beijing.
China hoped to have the meat of the deal -- whose members include Japan, India and Southeast Asian nations -- done by the end of this year as ballast to US tariffs and increasingly pugnacious rhetoric on trade.
But the timetable has slipped, with sticking points over free access to markets remaining -- and a raft of general elections early next year likely to further hamper its progress.
Speaking in Singapore, Premier Li said he hoped RCEP would be signed and implemented next year.
"It (RCEP) is going to deliver real benefits to the people of our region," he said, without giving a date.
China was now the standard bearer of global free trade, he added, with the 16-member RCEP deal at the heart of its strategy.
"It's going to send a message to the international community that we stand by free trade... with rising protectionism and strains on free trade, we need to advance the RCEP negotiations," Li said, in comments delivered at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
He conceded the Chinese economy was facing "challenges" in the wake of the trade war with the US, but insisted strong fundamentals meant radical intervention was not the remedy.
"Despite downward pressures we will not resort to massive stimulus," Li said.
- 'Significant progress' -
Trade diplomats said negotiations will run deep into 2019.
"We made significant progress," New Zealand minister of state for trade and export growth Damien O'Connor told reporters after talks late Monday, but added delegates were "hopefully ready for conclusion next year".
India's concerns over opening its markets to competition, in particular from Chinese firms, has been a key obstacle in the several years of negotiations.
But New Delhi's delegation welcomed the incremental steps towards establishing the trade agreement.
"The future lies in RCEP," Indian trade minister Suresh Prabhu told reporters, but urged a patient approach to talks to ensure "every country will benefit from it".
Several general elections scheduled early next year -- including in India, Thailand and Indonesia -- have complicated the timeframe of a deal that will open markets in countries accounting for about a third of the world's GDP.
The deal was given extra impetus after Trump pulled the US out of the rival Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
The TPP is still alive even without Washington, but RCEP is now the world's biggest trade deal.
However, the Beijing-backed pact is much less ambitious than the TPP in areas such as employment and environmental protection.
The ASEAN summit, which formally opens Tuesday afternoon, will cover trade, maritime disputes and the Rohingya crisis.
Frictions over Myanmar's treatment of the Muslim minority simmered Tuesday.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad broke ASEAN's normally cordial protocols by telling reporters Aung San Suu Kyi was "defending the indefensible" by not speaking up for the Rohingya -- hundreds of thousands of whom were driven into Bangladesh in a bloody purge last year.
Shortly afterwards Mahathir stood next to Suu Kyi for a stony-faced 'family' photo.
Amnesty International on Monday stripped Suu Kyi of its highest honour over her response to the Rohingya crisis.
Other world leaders including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Mike Pence -- Trump's number two -- are also in Singapore for talks foreshadowed by the China-US trade war and its ripple effect on global economies, particularly in Asia.
Pence is expected to keep pressure on Beijing over its growing aggression in the South China Sea while seeking support for Washington's approach to the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.