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International relations

Big power rivalries overshadow ASEAN gathering

Trump's new China tariffs and Japan-South Korea trade spat worry region

Foreign ministers attend the ASEAN Regional Forum in Bangkok on Aug. 2.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- U.S. President Donald Trump's new tariffs on billions of Chinese goods took center stage at a regional security conference here on Friday as Southeast Asian nations confronted the risk of spillover effects on the region's emerging markets.

Japan and South Korea's trade feud also loomed large at the meetings, heightening concerns over commercial tensions within Asia itself.

"We were talking about the trade tensions between U.S. and China and how it worries all of ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations]," Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said on Friday. "I can say it's a universal concern."

Major Southeast Asian economies, especially Singapore, grew more slowly in the first quarter of this year amid the tariff war between their key trading partners.

Ministers from the 10-nation bloc have been holding a series of meetings, including the ASEAN Regional Forum, since Wednesday, at times including regional partners China, Japan, South Korea and the U.S.

The agenda has been set mainly on security but trade tensions, which exposed the deepening rivalry among major economies, often took to the fore.

Trump on Thursday announced a 10% U.S. tariff on $300 billion worth of Chinese goods starting Sept. 1, after the latest round of trade negotiations in Shanghai this week failed to produce notable progress.

The announcement sparked a verbal exchange between the U.S. and Chinese sides in Bangkok.

"There have been negative implications from decades of bad behavior from China," U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Friday. "For decades, China has taken advantage on trade versus the United States, countries in Asia and Southeast Asia."

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi countered: "This is certainly not the right way to deal with economic and trade issues, and it is also against the rules of the World Trade Organization."

The trade row between South Korea and Japan compounded tensions.

In one of the meetings with ASEAN ministers on Friday, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha attacked Japan's removal of Seoul from its "white list" of preferred trading partners, which will complicate Korean high-tech companies supply procurement.

The "ROK (Republic of Korea) has and is going to enjoy preferred status or equal status with our ASEAN friends, and I don't know what is the source of the complaint by Foreign Minister Kang," Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said at the meeting.

In the face of the trade tensions, Thai foreign minister Don Pramudwinai, who chaired the meetings, said Southeast Asian nations vowed to speed up talks on a major free trade agreement.

"We affirmed our commitment to regionalism and multilateralism, and reiterated our strong commitment to concluding the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership negotiations by this year to help cushion the economic uncertainties," Pramudwinai said on Friday.

Ministers also tackled the South China Sea territorial dispute, with China saying "nonregional" countries should stay out of the disputed waters in a jab at the U.S. The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the conflict in Myanmar's Rakhine State was also discussed in the meetings.

Nikkei staff writer Masayuki Yuda in Bangkok contributed to this article.

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