Malaysian leader urges US to adopt more active Asean trade agenda

Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob attends a meeting with Asean leaders and US business representatives, as part of a US-Asean Special Summit in Washington. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob on Thursday (May 12) urged the United States to adopt a more active trade and investment agenda with the Asean, saying this would benefit Washington economically and strategically.

Speaking in Washington, where Asean leaders are gathered for a two-day summit with President Joe Biden, Datuk Seri Ismail made clear some of the frustration felt in Asia since former president Donald Trump quit a regional trade pact in 2017.

He said the US was an important partner for Asean, as its largest foreign direct investor and second largest trading partner, with two-way trade of US$308.9 billion (S$430 billion) in 2020.

Mr Ismail told a forum of US businesses and other Asean leaders the Covid-19 pandemic had made clear the importance of international trade and cooperation and the interlinkage of regional supply chains.

"Therefore, the US should adopt a more active trade and investment agenda with Asean, which will benefit the US economically and strategically," he said.

Mr Ismail pointed to the entry into force of the Regional Economic Comprehensive Partnership (RCEP), a Chinese-backed initiative, which Asean saw as an important tool to invigorate regional business and economic activity through a marked reduction in trade barriers.

He said there were some 6,200 US companies operating in Asean, many of which used the region as a production platform to export in the region and beyond.

"To further their growth I would encourage US businesses to tap into the largest FTA, with a market covering 15 countries, comprising 2.3 billion, or nearly a third of the global population and world GDP, and take advantage of the vast investment opportunities presented," he said.

At a virtual summit with Asean last October, Mr Biden said Washington would start talks about developing an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) to engage more with the region as the United States seeks to push back against China's growing influence.

This would aim to set regional standards for cooperation, but does not currently offer the expanded market access Asian nations crave given his concern for American jobs.

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