Southeast Asia should use the sway of its shared market of 650 million people and speak with “one voice” to ensure that it is treated fairly in an age of protectionism, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said yesterday as leaders gathered for a regional summit.
The image of unity ASEAN strives to project has been clouded by wrangling over a long-delayed agreement on a free-trade bloc. The group’s 10 members are also divided over the handling of territorial disputes with China.
There were signs of progress, with officials saying that they hope to present a preliminary agreement on the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) aimed at creating a 16-member trading bloc including ASEAN and six other major economies, led by China.
Mahathir told business leaders attending ASEAN meetings that they should unite in fighting back if countries try to shut them out of their markets.
A trade war between Beijing and Washington and US President Donald Trump’s “America first” stance have many countries sharing a common goal of protecting their access to wealthy Western markets.
“ASEAN is quite a big market for the whole world. We don’t want to go into a trade war,” Mahathir said.
He described campaigns against exports of palm oil from Malaysia and Indonesia over concerns regarding labor and environmental issues as “sabotage.”
“If they do things that are not nice to us, we have to be not nice to them,” he said. “If you cut back some imports of palm oil from Malaysia, we can cut back our imports from them.”
“We should have one voice,” Mahathir said. “If you go it alone, you will be bullied.”
Trump opted not to attend the ASEAN and other regional meetings outside Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, that were to begin later yesterday and run through tomorrow.
Many other regional leaders are attending, including Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強), Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Mahathir, who is 94 and known for not mincing his words, had some harsh things to say about the US leader and his policies, describing Trump as “not a very nice man.”
ASEAN Business Advisory Council chairman Arin Jira, who chaired the meeting, said that the gathering should call for “world economic peace” against trade wars that are causing havoc.
“The result of war is only destruction,” he said.
Philippine Secretary of Trade and Industry Ramon Lopez told reporters that ASEAN trade ministers and counterparts from wealthier Asian countries expect to report to their leaders tomorrow that seven years of negotiations on RCEP are “nearing conclusion.”
Regional leaders last year asked their trade ministers to conclude the negotiations this year.
“We cannot go there you know [and say]: ‘It’s not yet concluded, we’re far from it.’ We’ll really look silly. That’s the reason why there is this hard, strong effort to reach a conclusion,” Lopez said.
China is among those leading the negotiations, along with ASEAN members and their dialogue partners Japan, South Korea, Australia, India and New Zealand.
However, some countries such as India have expressed concern that the deal could flood their markets with cheap Chinese goods and undermine local manufacturers.
RCEP would be one of the world’s biggest regional trade blocs if all 16 nations join, covering about 45 percent of the global population and about one-third of GDP, with projected trade of more than US$10.3 trillion, or nearly 30 percemt of the world total.
While ASEAN members might share a common goal in boosting their trade within and outside the region, they struggle with how to address tensions over China’s encroachment into the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
Vietnam wanted a communique to be issued by ASEAN leaders that would mention Chinese movements into waters where Hanoi has exclusive rights to exploit energy resources, as well as other aggressive acts off the Philippines and Malaysia in the past few months.
China, through its ASEAN ally Cambodia, has opposed any such move, two Southeast Asian diplomats told reporters.
After weeks of wrangling, senior diplomats hammered out a compromise phrase that expresses concern over “serious incidents in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region,” one of the diplomats said.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity for lack of authority to discuss the issue publicly.
China and its ASEAN allies have steadfastly refused attempts to use the annual summits as an arena to rebuke Beijing for its actions, which include building seven islands on disputed reefs that US officials have said could serve as military platforms to intimidate rival claimants.
Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines also have competing claims to all or parts of the waterway.
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