SINGAPORE – Leaders of Southeast Asian nations have again pushed back 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 delayed 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 to escape violence in Myanmar.
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 U.S. 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.