NONTHABURI - US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross is confident American trade in the Indo-Pacific region will continue to grow despite the ongoing United States-China trade war.
"As we gather again in future years, our numbers will only get bigger," Mr Ross said at the Indo-Pacific Business Forum, which is being held on the sidelines of the 14th East Asia Summit and the Asean Summit taking place just outside Bangkok.
Emphasising that the Trump administration is "extremely engaged and fully committed to the region", Mr Ross added also that the US remained the largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI) in the Indo-Pacific region.
The Indo-Pacific is a geopolitical area spanning two regions of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, making up almost four billion people or about half of the global population.
"The Indo-Pacific Business Forum is a key piece of this government-wide push, emphasising our role as the preferred commercial partner in the region," he was quoted as saying in a statement.
He said US investment in the region was US$866 billion (S$1.17 trillion) as at the end of last year, adding that this was far higher than that of China which stood at US$504 billion as of 2017, of which US$381 billion went to Hong Kong.
Overall US-Indo Pacific trade increased by almost 6 per cent last year to US$2 trillion, surpassing US trade with Europe at US$1.5 trillion and with South and Central America at US$1.2 trillion.
Accompanied by 40 executives from leading US companies, Mr Ross is leading an economic mission to Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam.
His keynote speech at the forum presented a more upbeat outlook than an opinion piece he wrote that was published in The Straits Times last Saturday.
In the piece, he called for a renewed partnership with the Indo-Pacific region but one where trade barriers were removed to fix "the significant trade imbalance" - US$1.23 trillion in imports for the US but only US$720 billion in exports.
In his op-ed, he also called China's trade policies "unfair" with "decades of predatory behaviour".
At the forum, Mr Charles Freeman, senior vice-president for Asia at the US Chamber of Commerce, called for an end to the US-China trade war, saying it has been "damaging to US businesses" and to the rest of the region.
"We want to continue urging the United States and China to bring to a close their conflict. We want to see an end to that," he said.
Mr Ross also addressed concerns over a recent US decision to suspend trade benefits to Thailand in April 2020, saying "it has been blown out of proportion" and that it is "not a big deal".
The tariff exemption on US$1.3 billion worth of Thai exports, which Bangkok has enjoyed since 1976, is expected to end next April because of workers' rights issues.
"There is still time to renegotiate the underlying issues of workers' rights," the Secretary of Commerce said.
Mr Ross is the most senior US official attending the meetings in Thailand.
President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not turn up in what was widely perceived as a snub by Washington and led to downgraded Asean representation at the Asean-US Summit on Monday, with only the heads of state from Thailand, Vietnam and Laos attending.