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ASEAN 'deeply concerned' over protectionism: summit statement

Bloc to advance RCEP as 'sign' of commitment to trade liberalization, Singapore PM says

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks to media on April 28. (Photo by Yuichi Nitta)

SINGAPORE -- The member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are "deeply concerned" over rising protectionism and support the multilateral trade framework, the leaders from 10 countries concluded on Saturday at their semi-annual meeting in Singapore.

"The open, rules-based multilateral trading system, which has underpinned the growth of ASEAN member state, is under pressure," Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at the beginning of Saturday's summit, pointing out that recent tensions between the U.S. and China are "worrying concerns."

In the chairman's statement issued after the meeting, ASEAN noted member states are "deeply concerned over the rising tide of protectionism and anti-globalization sentiments."

Speaking at a press conference after the summit, Lee told reporters that the national leaders agreed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) -- a trade framework among ASEAN, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand -- is "something urgent which we do want."

Leaders and country representatives of ASEAN member states pose for a group photo during the opening ceremony.   © AP

Pointing out that the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement was signed by 11 countries, without the U.S., he said this "made it more urgent that we proceed with RCEP as a sign that countries in the Asia Pacific are pressing forward with trade liberalization and are committed to trade liberalization." Lee said ASEAN wants to conclude "something valuable by this year" on RCEP.

Another area in which the bloc expressed "concerns" is the South China Sea, a disputed area where China continues land reclamation and militarization.

In the chairman's statement, ASEAN "took note of the concerns expressed by some leaders on the land reclamations and activities in the area."

As for the code of conduct in the South China Sea, on which ASEAN and China started negotiations in March, the statement noted: "We warmly welcomed the improving cooperation between ASEAN and China and were encouraged by the official commencement of the substantive negotiations towards the early conclusion of an effective code of conduct in the South China Sea on a mutually-agreed timeline."

Lee told the press conference that he expects concluding the code of conduct to "take some time," as views differ on whether it should be legally binding.

In addition to these issues, Lee said that the plight of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar is also "a concern to all ASEAN countries." In the statement, ASEAN "expressed continued support for Myanmar's humanitarian relief program" and "looked forward to the expeditious commencement of the voluntary return of displaced persons to Myanmar in a safe, secure and dignified way without undue delay."

Saturday's summit came a day after the North and South Korean leaders met. In the chairman's statement, ASEAN "welcomed" the inter-Korean summit, Kim Jong Un's recent visit to China, as well as the announcement of plans for a meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump. The inter-Korean summit is "a positive step," Lee said in the press conference.

Regarding speculation that Singapore might host the planned U.S.-North Korean summit, Lee said, "We have had no invitations or requests from any of the parties."

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