APEC explores regional free trade as U.S. pushes bilateral deals


Ministers from 21 Pacific Rim economies explored cooperation in promoting free trade and regional economic integration as they gathered in Vietnam on Wednesday amid concerns over U.S. President Donald Trump’s preference for bilateral trade deals under his “America First” policy.

On the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in the central Vietnamese city of Danang, the 11 remaining signatories of the Trans-Pacific Partnership came a step closer to a broad agreement to implement their free trade deal after the United States’ January withdraw.

At the single-day APEC meeting, Vietnam’s Minister of Industry and Trade, Tran Tuan Anh, co-chair of the APEC gathering, expressed in his opening remarks the “determination of APEC in pursuing a free and open region for trade and investment.”

Washington’s pullout from the TPP has cast a shadow over the promotion of multilateral trade liberalization and regional economic integration, which has been a focus of APEC over the past years.

Trump, who is on a five-nation Asian trip, is set to make his APEC summit debut on Friday. He is expected to stress his preference for a “fair, free and reciprocal trading relationship,” while also pursuing a “free and open Indo-Pacific region.”

Foreign Minister Taro Kono expressed hope in the APEC meeting for the installation of free and fair trade and investment rules that fit the 21st century.

It remains to be seen whether the unity of the APEC ministers on free trade will be maintained after the previous APEC trade ministers’ meeting held in Hanoi in May ended without a joint statement for the first time since 2012 due to a continuing dispute over protectionism.

At that time, a chair’s statement was released instead as the representatives of 21 economies failed to reach a consensus on the wording over protectionism.

Trump’s “America First” policy has stoked concerns about rising protectionism in the form of import restrictions and increased tariffs, which could hamper free trade and global growth.

At the meeting, the APEC ministers also addressed measures to realize an APEC-wide free trade agreement called the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific covering about half of the world economy and 60 percent of global trade, according to Japanese officials.

The 11 TPP ministers, meanwhile, are hashing out details to strike the broad agreement in time for their leaders’ meeting scheduled for Friday. They are still at odds as they discuss suspending some clauses in their original agreement in anticipation of the U.S. potentially returning to the pact.

“As the co-chair, Japan presented a framework of the draft of the new agreement (on the TPP) and issues that remain to be addressed at the ministerial level,” Toshimitsu Motegi, Japan’s minister in charge of TPP, told reporters following the first day of TPP ministerial meetings co-chaired by Japan and Vietnam on Wednesday.

“Major issues have been narrowed down,” Motegi said, adding he “certainly” feels negotiations have gained momentum for a broad agreement. The ministers will meet again on Thursday.

APEC groups Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam.

Of the APEC members, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam are remaining signatories of the TPP.

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