ASEAN vows to maintain multilateral trade system amid rising trade protectionism

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ASEAN leaders pose for a group photo during the opening ceremony of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Bangkok, Thailand, June 23, 2019. The opening ceremony of the 34th ASEAN Summit was held in Bangkok on Sunday. (Xinhua/Rachen Sageamsak)

Southeast Asian nations reached a consensus on Sunday to fight against trade protectionism and support the maintaining of a multilateral trade system as they wrapped up the 34th summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Bangkok.

“We remained concerned over the unabating tide of protectionism and anti-globalization sentiments that continue to plague the global economy and put the multilateral trading system under threat,” said a chairman’s statement released after the summit.

Amidst the challenges faced by the World Trade Organization (WTO), there is a need to preserve and strengthen the dispute settlement mechanism as the WTO’s unique system in settling trade disputes, said the statement, adding that the ASEAN therefore reaffirmed the strong commitment to upholding an inclusive, transparent, and rules-based multilateral trading system.

The 10-member ASEAN also noted the work that is being undertaken to reform and modernize the WTO and reiterated its full support to this endeavor.

ASEAN countries said they recognized that the global economy is at an important crossroad with an increasing number of uncertainties and challenges.

“In this regard, we reiterated our strong commitment to concluding the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations within 2019 to reinvigorate international trade and to maintain ASEAN credibility and centrality,” the statement said.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha urged ASEAN nations to complete negotiations this year for the RCEP.

“This will help ASEAN handle the changes and uncertainty that will happen in the region going forward, particularly the impacts of trade tension between ASEAN’s important trade partners.”

The RCEP, a proposed free trade agreement between the 10 ASEAN members and six of their FTA partners, namely China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India, is expected to be one of the world’s largest trading blocs, accounting for 45 percent of the world population, 40 percent of global trade and around one third of the world’s GDP. The talks on the RCEP were launched in 2012.

Countries in East Asia region have thriving trade and economic relations with each other through free trade agreements. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has free trade agreements with six partners namely People’s Republic of China (ACFTA), Republic of Korea (AKFTA), Japan (AJCEP), India (AIFTA) as well as Australia and New Zealand (AANZFTA).

In order to broaden and deepen the engagement among parties and to enhance parties’ participation in economic development of the region, the leaders of 16 participating countries established the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

The RCEP was built upon the existing ASEAN+1 FTAs with the spirit to strengthen economic linkages and to enhance trade and investment related activities as well as to contribute to minimising development gap among the parties.

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