Pan-Asian Trade Deal Sees More Delays 11/14 06:17
SINGAPORE (AP) -- Leaders of Southeast Asian nations have pushed back yet
again an agreement on a pan-Asian free trade deal amid a whirlwind of diplomacy
Wednesday at their annual summit.
In convening talks among the leaders of countries participating in the plan,
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said a final agreement on the deal,
which is expected to encompass nearly half the world's population and 40
percent of world trade, will be pushed back until 2019.
Lee's comments confirmed earlier expectations that the 16 countries in the
plan, called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, would
not meet their goal of finalizing the accord this year.
The trade talks followed scores of bilateral meetings among the leaders and
talks on other issues such as regional security, how to keep peace in the South
China Sea and the crisis over hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya Muslims
who have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar to escape violence.
During the meetings in Singapore, Lee has championed the region's commitment
to free trade and a multilateral approach to sorting out the issue --- in
contrast with President Donald Trump's "American First" preference for
bilateral trade deals and distrust of international institutions.
"We are meeting at a critical time. Protectionism and anti-globalization
sentiments are on the rise. This can have a devastating impact on the regional
as well as the global economy, and business confidence in Asia is already being
affected," Lee said.
"It's important that we redouble our economic integration efforts and
maintain a free, open and rules-based multilateral trading system which has
underpinned our growth and prosperity," he said.
Trump withdrew from a Pacific Rim trade initiative, the Trans-Pacific
Partnership, just after taking office last year. That trade pact is due to take
effect on Dec. 30. The U.S. is not part of the RCEP initiative, which includes
China, India, Australia and most other Asian economies.
Lee said participating countries had finished five of seven chapters in
their agreement and shown "strong political will" in finishing it. He warned
that further delays in reaching an agreement would damage the RCEP's
"We are now at the final stage of negotiations. With a strong momentum
generated this year, I am pleased to note that the RCEP negotiations are poised
for conclusion in 2019," he said.
The 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations members include Brunei,
Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore,
Thailand and Vietnam. Earlier Wednesday, the ASEAN leaders met with their
counterparts from Australia, China, South Korea, Russia and Japan.
Managing conflict in the South China Sea is a perennial concern; China is
pitted against its smaller neighbors in multiple disputes in the sea over coral
reefs and lagoons in waters crucial for global commerce and rich in fish and
potential oil and gas reserves.
While in Singapore, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has sought to reassure
"We have found the way to properly manage and defuse differences, for
example, on the issue of the South China Sea in the past years," Li said,
adding that the situation was moving toward "greater stability" with progress
toward a single draft text on a code of conduct in the sea. He reiterated
Beijing's hope to have a final agreement within three years.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said such a code was needed "at all
cost" to prevent dangerous miscalculations.
The Philippines softened its earlier harsh criticism of China's assertive
moves in the disputed waters after Duterte sought to repair relations with
Beijing once he took office in 2016 and sought infrastructure funding, trade
and investment from Beijing.
The region already has a nonbinding "Declaration of Conduct" but is working
toward a more robust agreement, with China appearing to win support for its
calls to ban involvement by outside powers, such as the United States, in
Duterte cited a risk of "serious miscalculation" and potential clashes that
could trigger military action based on mutual defense treaties.
"So you are there, so you are in possession, you have occupied it, but tell
us what route we should take, what kind of behavior ..." he said.
"Everything's been excellent between China and the rest of ASEAN except for
the fact that there's friction between the Western nations and China," Duterte
told reporters as he headed into meetings.
While the Singapore meetings were typically focused on cooperation and
goodwill, concerns over Myanmar's treatment of its ethnic Rohingya Muslims
flared with unusually sharp comments to the country's leader, Nobel Peace Prize
laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence told Suu Kyi on Wednesday that the situation
was inexcusable. He also took aim at Myanmar's arrest and imprisonment of two
On Tuesday, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed lambasted Suu Kyi for
her handling of the crisis that led to mass killings and the exodus of more
than 700,000 Rohingya from Buddhist-majority Myanmar since August 2017.
Mahathir, whose own country has a Muslim majority, said he told Suu Kyi that
as a former political detainee, she should show more compassion.
"They are actually oppressing these people to the point of, well, killing
them, mass killing, and burial in graves dug by the victims and that kind of
thing," said Mahathir, a 93-year-old political veteran whose own past treatment
of dissidents at times drew opprobrium. "That may be relevant in ancient times,
but in modern days, we don't do that kind of thing."