DANANG, VIETNAM – Ministers from 21 Pacific Rim economies agreed in principle on the importance of free trade and multilateral frameworks but struggled to produce a statement at the end of extended two-day talks on Thursday, Japan’s trade minister said.
In a rare development, the ministers of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum decided the previous day to extend discussions after failing to reach a consensus on a joint statement. Concerns are mounting over the new trade policy pursued by U.S. President Donald Trump that pushes for bilateral trade deals over multilateral trade frameworks.
The first APEC meeting since Trump took office, which was held in the central Vietnamese city of Danang, focused on how to advance regional trade with the United States, the world’s largest economy.
Trump pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal, saying Americans would lose jobs under such an agreement.
Hiroshige Seko, Japan’s Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, denied the view that the ministers were in a disagreement. “Even if a country emphasizes bilateral (relations), it does not deny the role of multilateral frameworks,” said Seko, in an apparent reference to the United States.
“The meeting was held amid various new political situations. There is nothing wrong if it takes time to make arrangements” in producing a ministerial statement, Seko said.
The focus of the APEC ministerial meeting has been on whether unity on free trade will be maintained after the APEC trade ministers’ meeting held in Hanoi in May ended without a joint statement for the first time since 2012.
At the time, a chair’s statement was released instead as the representatives of the 21 economies failed to reach a consensus on the wording.
At the latest meeting, the APEC ministers also discussed 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 ministers will report their conclusions to the leaders, who will meet from Friday.
Trump, who is on a five-nation Asian trip, is set to make his APEC summit debut. He has called for a “fair, free and reciprocal trading relationship,” while also pursuing a “free and open Indo-Pacific region” during his earlier trip to Japan.
APEC includes 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.