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APEC leaders seek free and open trade to drive recovery from pandemic


Leaders from 21 Pacific Rim economies have agreed on the need to pursue free and open trade to spur economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, as they issued their first joint declaration in three years.

“We recognize the importance of a free, open, fair, non-discriminatory, transparent and predictable trade and investment environment to drive economic recovery,” the leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, including U.S. President Donald Trump, said in the statement issued Friday after their virtual summit.

The meeting took place for the first time since 2018 after last year’s gathering was canceled due to political unrest in Chile, the expected host. In 2018, APEC leaders failed to agree on a joint declaration because of a deepening divide between the United States and China over trade and other issues.

With the novel coronavirus continuing to rage globally, the APEC economies, covering 60% of global gross domestic product, seem to have come together this year to show their determination to tackle the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While vowing to deploy “all available policy tools” in strengthening the response to the epidemic, the participants said in the declaration, “We recognize the need to enhance stimulus measures that facilitate economic recovery and job creation.”

The global economy is showing signs of recovery from a plunge earlier in the year in economic activities stemming from the pandemic. But a recent resurgence of infections is threatening to slow the recovery.

The leaders pledged to “facilitate the movement of essential goods and services, as well as the essential movement of people in a safe manner,” and urged APEC members to ensure any emergency trade restrictions meant to tackle the coronavirus are in line with World Trade Organization rules.

They also affirmed cooperation on the development of treatments and vaccines for COVID-19.

During the summit hosted by Malaysia, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga stressed that “promotion of free trade and investment and increased connectivity based on international rules will support a free and open Indo-Pacific,” a government official told a press briefing in Tokyo.

Chinese President Xi Jinping said the world’s second-largest economy will “give positive consideration” to joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

The CPTPP is an 11-member free trade agreement that entered into force after Trump withdrew the United States in 2017 from what was originally the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an expansive trade deal that was aimed at countering China’s economic influence.

Just days before the APEC summit, 15 Asia-Pacific countries including Japan, China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a landmark deal to create the world’s biggest free trade bloc.

The development came as Washington appears to have been retreating from the region, as seen from Trump’s rejection of the TPP. The president has also faced criticism from U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific for often snubbing key meetings in the region.

Whether Trump would attend the APEC summit had been unclear until the last minute, as his public appearances have been limited since he lost his re-election bid earlier this month and seemingly occupied himself with efforts to overturn the results.

Trump participated in the summit for the first time since 2017, the year he took office. He sent Vice President Mike Pence in his place in 2018.

During the APEC meeting, Trump vowed to promote “peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region through strong economic growth” and highlighted the “global health leadership of the United States,” including the recent successful development of COVID-19 vaccines, the White House said in a statement.

The leaders also adopted the APEC Putrajaya Vision 2040, which replaced the 1994 Bogor Goals in setting the forum’s objectives for promoting free trade and regional connectivity in the aftermath of a pandemic that has claimed more than 1.3 million lives and upended the global economy.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a lasting impact on the way we view trade and economic priorities within APEC,” Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said in his opening remarks.

“We need to trade and invest our way out of the current economic downturn. We must come together and work constructively towards navigating the region along a path of robust, inclusive and sustainable economic recovery and growth,” he said.

Founded in 1989, APEC is a platform for discussions on free trade and economic cooperation by Pacific Rim countries covering 37% of the global population and 48% of the world’s trade volume.

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

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