This has not been a good year for trade policy. In January, US President Donald Trump unleashed the first protectionist initiative of his presidency by announcing tariffs on solar panels and washing machines. He followed up in March with tariffs on steel and aluminium. Over the next two months, the United States and China issued repeated tit-for-tat protectionist threats against each other. The European Union also chimed in with warnings of retaliatory tariffs against the US.
Watching from the sidelines, it is understandable that Asean countries would find these developments unsettling. Most are heavily dependent on trade. Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam have trade-to-GDP ratios of more than 100 per cent; in Singapore's case, it exceeds 300 per cent. Moreover, about three quarters of Asean's trade is with countries outside the grouping.