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International relations

APEC: Japan's Suga vows to push for bigger trade pacts after RCEP

All eyes on Trump and China ahead of virtual leaders meeting

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's video message to the APEC CEO Dialogues is shown on a screen in Kuala Lumpur on Nov. 20.   © Malaysia Information Department via Reuters

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga called for a broader Asia-Pacific free trade framework on Friday, in a video message to Malaysia's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit ahead of a virtual leaders meeting later in the day.

Suga said Japan wants to realize the proposed Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, or FTAAP, "through the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the sound execution and expansion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership."

Japan joined 14 other Asia-Pacific countries in signing RCEP last weekend, and in 2021 it aims to lead talks on the way forward for the 11-member TPP -- officially the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, signed in 2018. The U.K. has been floated as a possible TPP addition, especially after it recently sealed a bilateral deal with Japan.

FTAAP, meanwhile, is a vision for linking all 21 APEC member economies.

Suga called for "free and fair rules in the international economy, amid tendencies toward inward-oriented thinking in the global economic downturn" brought on by COVID-19.

In remarks following Suga, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also spoke of "building on" the CPTPP after signing RCEP. "We must not repeat the mistakes of history by retreating into protectionism," she said. "APEC must continue to commit to keeping markets open and trade flowing."

Their statements were part of the APEC CEO Dialogues, a two-day online event featuring speeches by world leaders and discussions with business executives. On the first day, several leaders including Chinese President Xi Jinping also called for promoting trade and avoiding the protectionist impulse.

A speaking slot had been tentatively reserved for U.S. President Donald Trump, but he did not participate in the dialogues. News agencies AFP and Reuters have both reported that Trump does intend to take part in the APEC summit, citing unnamed American officials. For Trump, the meeting may be an appealing opportunity to go after China in what might be one of his last major international summits, amid his effort to challenge his apparent loss to Joe Biden in the U.S. election.

It was Trump who pulled the U.S. out of the original TPP, forcing the remaining 11 countries to regroup. Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushed hard to keep the deal alive, and Suga -- who took the reins from Abe in September -- made it clear he wants Japan to play a leadership role on multiple fronts.

Suga said Japan seeks to "lead the international rules related to digital trade," as it co-chairs the negotiations on trade-related aspects of electronic commerce at the World Trade Organization.

Likewise, he called a "free and open Indo-Pacific" the "cornerstone for the prosperity of this region," and said Japan intends to "take a leadership role in making that a reality."

Still a relative newcomer to the global stage, Suga made a pitch for his government's plans, naming digitization and the creation of a "green society" as two key priorities. He reiterated his pledge to make Japan carbon neutral by 2050, as well as his ambition to elevate the country as an international financial center by drawing more global talent.

With APEC expected to decide on new development goals for the next 20 years, Suga stressed that "digital transformation and innovation will be the key to economic prosperity in this region."

One question looming over the APEC proceedings is whether the leaders will indeed reach a consensus on those goals and release a joint communique. At the last meeting in Papua New Guinea in 2018 -- the 2019 event was canceled due to unrest in host Chile -- the leaders failed to agree on a declaration for the first time in the summit's history. This was mainly due to the U.S.-China clash over trade.

That rift has not exactly healed, and other APEC countries have their own disagreements with China. Australia's relations with Beijing have rapidly deteriorated, with the Chinese government applying ever-increasing trade pressure in recent months.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was one of the few leaders to venture off safe territory in his remarks during the APEC CEO Dialogues.

Ottawa and Beijing have been at odds over the detention of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Canada for extradition to the U.S. "Canada is deeply disappointed with some of the positions that China is taking, including the arbitrary detention of two of our citizens," Trudeau said. "But we also know it's an important player in the global economy that we need to try and include."

Asked whether he regretted that Canada stepped into the Meng case, he replied: "Do I regret that Canada followed its laws? Do I regret that Canada lived up to a long-standing extradition treaty with our closest ally? Absolutely not."

Trudeau said it was important for like-minded governments to work together, since "very few countries can stand up on their own to a superpower."

"We need to work together as a world to say that not only is this not in the world's interest, it's actually not in China's interest to continue to behave in a way that is trying to use its weight to get its way."

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