Apec summit: China’s Xi Jinping vows no decoupling in call to reject protectionism

The address comes just days after the region inaugurated the world's largest free-trade agreement. PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR (BLOOMBERG) - President Xi Jinping pledged that China wouldn't engage in decoupling, in an address to Asia-Pacific leaders just days after the region inaugurated the world's largest free-trade agreement.

"We will not reverse course or run against the historical trend by 'decoupling' or forming a small circle to keep others out," Mr Xi said.

Mr Xi spoke by video Thursday morning (Nov 19) as part of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit hosted by Malaysia, an annual gathering being held virtually this year due the pandemic.

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was slated to speak later Thursday, while his counterparts from Japan and New Zealand were expected to address the gathering on Friday.

Mr Xi's speech came as he - and the world - await clues on how US President-elect Joe Biden will approach Beijing. The White House declined to say whether President Donald Trump plans to address the summit.

Mr Trump left national security adviser Robert O'Brien to represent the US at a separate gathering of South-east Asian nations last week.

Mr Xi and Vice-President Mike Pence traded sharp barbs in back-to-back speeches at Apec meetings two years ago, a confrontation that prevented the forum from issuing a joint statement for the first time.

Asia-Pacific nations including China, Japan and South Korea signed the world's largest regional free-trade agreement over the weekend, encompassing almost a third of the world's economic output.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), almost a decade in the making, has raised questions over whether the US would move under Mr Biden to counter China's growing regional influence, especially as Mr Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017.

"In today's world where economic globalisation has become an irreversible trend, no country can develop itself by keeping its doors closed," Mr Xi said Thursday.

Last year's Apec summit in Chile, where Mr Trump had expected to sign a preliminary trade accord with China, was cancelled as host city Santiago struggled with street protests.

That puts greater onus on reaching a Leaders' Declaration this year - a non-binding statement covering topics such as urbanisation, sustainable tourism and natural disasters.

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, the event's host leader, told Apec gatherings Thursday that the "most important priority" was to "reaffirm our support and commitment for the rules-based multilateral trading system."

"This is essential for our businesses," Tan Sri Muhyiddin said in a speech, "as market stability and productivity are the central pillars which ensure that trade investment continue to flow even during times of crisis."

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