Asia-Pacific forum sticks to free-trade gospel despite Trump

By The Canadian Press
November 11, 2017 - 2:30am

DANANG, Vietnam — An annual Pacific Rim summit is sticking with its tradition of promoting free trade and closer regional ties, shrugging off President Donald Trump's "America First" approach.

The leaders of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum said Saturday that they had recommitted to fighting protectionism and "all unfair trade practices." They also expressed support for multi-country institutions and regional as well as country-to-country trade agreements.

Trade ministers from 11 of the Pacific Rim countries announced an agreement on pushing ahead with a free-trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, whose destiny had been cast into doubt after Trump pulled the U.S. out.

Efforts to get an agreement on how to proceed without the U.S. stumbled at the last moment, with leaders unable to formally endorse the proposal. But trade ministers announced a preliminary deal, with some details to be worked out later.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters that environmental protection, labour rights, gender issues and the auto industry were areas needing work, though he did not go into specifics.

"We got a lot of work done, but there is still more work to do," Trudeau said.

The revisions required for the 11 remaining TPP countries to continue talks required a difficult balance between high standards and pragmatism, said Japanese Economy Minister Toshimitsu Motegi.

"The substance is something all the TPP countries can agree on," said Motegi. "This will send a very strong message to the U.S. and the other countries in the region."

Trudeau said his unexpected absence from a TPP leaders' meeting on Friday, which caused consternation among his fellow leaders and confusion about Canada's stance, stemmed from an extra-long meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

"We were not ready to close the TPP 11 yesterday," he said.

The ministers dropped some key provisions the Americans had required on protection of intellectual property, among others. They also changed the trade accord's name to the unwieldy Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP.

Those trade talks took place on the sidelines of APEC summitry: ceremonial arrivals in bright tailored shirts to a gala banquet, a closed-door retreat and scores of bilateral meetings between the 21 leaders attending the event in this coastal resort city.

Increasingly, APEC summits have become more of an opportunity for such side talks, and for host nations to showcase their growing affluence.

Trump's dramatically different stances from his predecessor, Barack Obama — such as his "America First" trade strategy and his skepticism over climate change — were apparent in Danang. But his hosts and the other leaders took it in stride.

As an institution, apart from its pageantry and its tradition of drawing leaders together for face-to-face meetings, APEC mainly serves as a laboratory for trying out policies and encouraging "best practices," said Alan Bollard, executive director for APEC's secretariat. Unlike the TPP trade pact, whose decisions will eventually be enforced, APEC's statements are nonbinding.

"We're in an easier place to try things out, to test policy sensitivities even if we don't get everybody around the table," Bollard said.

The declaration issued Saturday contain calls for continued work to improve food security, to help ensure the benefits of economic growth are more evenly shared and to make member countries more business-friendly, among a slew of development-related plans. It also contained measures addressing climate change.

As a developing country with a fast-growing export sector, this year's host country, Vietnam, has a strong interest in open trade and access for its exports to consumers in the West given the role foreign investment and trade have played in helping its economy to grow at a more than 6 per cent pace. Danang, Vietnam's third-largest city, is in the midst of a construction boom as dozens of resorts and smaller hotels pop up along its scenic coastline.

APEC's members are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, the U.S. and Vietnam.

The countries participating in the newly renamed Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

Tran Van Minh And Elaine Kurtenbach, The Associated Press

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