HANOI - If the escalating trade war being waged by the United States can be represented by Marvel supervillain Thanos, then Asean member states are the Avengers, working hard to uphold the world order.
That was the message from Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who cited characters in the superhero blockbuster film Avengers: Infinity War at the World Economic Forum on Asean on Wednesday (Sept 12) to describe the current state of the global economy and its lurch towards a trade war.
What is happening, Mr Joko said, is that "we are heading towards Infinity War".
"But rest assured, I and my fellow Avengers stand ready to prevent Thanos from wiping out half the world population," he added.
His message was echoed by several Asean leaders at the forum's opening plenary session, who said openness to trade remains a priority for the region and an important strategy for economic growth.
Mr Joko's comments come as US President Donald Trump has been stepping up tariffs on billions of dollars worth of goods from countries including China, Canada and European Union members.
But Mr Joko made clear: "Thanos is not any individual person, sorry to disappoint you."
"Thanos is the misguided belief that in order for us to succeed, others must surrender. He is the misperception that the rise of some necessarily means the decline of others," he said.
In fact, Mr Joko said, economic growth in the era of technological disruption is not a zero-sum game.
After all, technological progress is creating ever greater efficiencies, allowing countries and industries to stretch their resources farther than ever before, he said.
"And as our economies develop, they are driven increasingly not by natural resources, which are limited, but by human talent, which is unlimited," he added.
Speaking before Mr Joko, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Asean is working with like-minded partners to strengthen the open and rules-based multilateral trading system.
"This system has underpinned our growth and stability, but is under pressure, and even threat," he said.
"This is why Asean is doing our utmost to make progress on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and hope to achieve a substantial conclusion to the RCEP by the end of the year, although this is not yet assured."
The RCEP, which includes Asean and six other nations - China, India, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea - will create the world's largest trading bloc once it is finalised, encompassing a third of global gross domestic product.
Chinese Vice Premier Hu Chunhua, who also spoke at the plenary, said countries had to "categorically reject" trade protectionism.
"Some countries' protectionist and unilateral measures are gravely undermining the rules-based multilateral trading regime, posing a most serious hazard to the world economy," he said.