Asian nations gave up hopes of completing a 16-nation trade bloc this year, with Chinese and Australian officials now looking to finalise the deal in 2019. Singapore, which is chairing the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations this year, had pushed for a substantial conclusion to the pact this year. Known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the trade deal would cover almost half the world\u2019s population. \u201cIt\u2019ll take a little bit longer to ensure that we get the type of substantial, meaningful, commercially meaningful market access decisions that Australia expects in a trade agreement,\u201d Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham told reporters Tuesday in Singapore. That\u2019s despite ministers from RCEP nations meeting late on Monday night and making substantial progress, he said. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang echoed those sentiments in Singapore on Tuesday, saying he hoped the talks would be completed next year. China has pushed to diversify its export markets amid a trade war with US, adding fresh urgency.\u201cWith the headwind of trade protectionism, free trade is facing some difficulties,\u201d Li said. RCEP is often seen as a rival to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a vast regional pact once led by the US that Trump withdrew from early in his presidency. Together with the Belt and Road Initiative to build investment and trade links with countries along the old Silk Road to Europe, the pact is a key element in China\u2019s efforts to seize the geopolitical advantage following what many in the region see as a US retreat. Beijing\u2019s struggles to finalise the trade bloc may illustrate worries in the region about becoming too economically dependent on China. And in a speech to an ASEAN business and investment conference on Tuesday, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad said the bloc must not accept trade and investment measures that may be unfair to member countries.