Apec meeting puts Trump's trade turmoil centre stage

US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer (right) enters a meeting room to attend the Apec trade ministers' meeting at the National Convention Centre in Hanoi yesterday. He will have individual meetings with counterparts from some of Washington's mos
US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer (right) enters a meeting room to attend the Apec trade ministers' meeting at the National Convention Centre in Hanoi yesterday. He will have individual meetings with counterparts from some of Washington's most important trading partners - in line with proposed bilateral deals that Mr Donald Trump argues can best protect American jobs.PHOTO: REUTERS

Ministers emphasise free trade, but differing visions evident in their meetings on sidelines

HANOI • Ministers from Asia-Pacific countries discussed the changing global trade landscape yesterday after US President Donald Trump upended the old order with an "America First" policy that has sparked fears of protectionism.

It is the biggest trade meeting since Mr Trump took office and brings together ministers from the United States, China, Japan and other Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) countries that account for more than 40 per cent of world trade.

At the opening in Vietnam's capital, Hanoi, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc highlighted three decades of growth in Apec and said: "That's the proof of our group's effort on liberalisation."

A draft seen by Reuters of the meeting statement to be issued today also emphasised free trade.

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"In some of our communities there are increasing numbers of people questioning the benefits of globalisation and free trade, spurring protectionist trends," it said. "Against that backdrop, we reaffirm our commitment to promote trade and investment liberalisation."

But the differing visions are evident in discussions on the sidelines.

New US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer will have individual meetings with counterparts from some of Washington's most important trading partners - in line with proposed bilateral deals that Mr Trump argues can best protect American jobs.

POSSIBLE U.S. CHANGE OF HEART

There has been less rhetoric and a more realistic approach.

MALAYSIAN TRADE MINISTER MUSTAPA MOHAMED, saying there was optimism the US would return to TPP one day as Mr Trump had shown readiness to shift his position on other matters.

China, putting itself forward as a global free trade champion, will be pushing a free trade agreement to encompass the vast majority of Asian economies. The Asia trade deal it favours is called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Officials said there remained significant points of disagreement in the talks on RCEP between South-east Asian countries, China, India, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea.

Japan is leading countries that want to persist with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal ditched by Mr Trump. TPP excludes China and covers a broader scope than the trade agreement favoured by Beijing.

Malaysian Trade Minister Mustapa Mohamed told Reuters there was optimism the US would return to TPP one day, because Mr Trump had shown readiness to shift his position on other matters, such as softening his stance towards China. "There has been less rhetoric and a more realistic approach," he said.

However, renegotiating the existing North America Free Trade Agreement is a bigger immediate priority for Washington. Canada and Mexico are at the Asia-Pacific meetings and are also in the North American trade area.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 21, 2017, with the headline 'Apec meeting puts Trump's trade turmoil centre stage'. Print Edition | Subscribe