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ASEAN leaders hanker for trade deal as economy sags on US-China spat

Leaders hope to secure a China-backed free trade pact for half the world’s population

By AFP - Nov 02,2019 - Last updated at Nov 02,2019

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (left) speaks next to Chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Business Advisory Council (ASEAN-BAC) Arin Jira (right) during a business forum on the sidelines of the 35th ASEAN summit in Bangkok, on Saturday (AFP photo)

BANGKOK — Southeast Asian leaders met on Saturday in Thailand eyeing a breakthrough in talks over the world’s largest trade deal to help throw off the torpor which has gripped the global economy since the start of the US-China tariff war.

The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) opened their annual summit in Bangkok hoping to secure a China-backed free trade pact knitting together half of the world’s population and around 40 per cent of its commerce.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) — a deal spanning India to New Zealand and wrangled over for several years — is now seen as an urgent counterpoint to US protectionism.

Washington’s trade rumble with Beijing has weighed on markets, with the IMF warning the spat could cut global growth to the lowest pace in more than a decade. 

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump’s protectionist rhetoric has spooked some ASEAN nations who fear their economies could fall under his crosshairs.

Trump has repeatedly warned of further intervention to protect American business and several Asian nations are waiting to find out if the US will put them on a watch list of “currency manipulators”. 

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad warned the regional bloc could hit back against any punitive trade measures, skirting over specifics.

“We will do exactly what Trump does,” he told a business forum ahead of the summit opening, calling the US leader “not a very nice man”. 

“If you go alone, you will be bullied. We don’t want to go into trade war but sometimes when they do things that are not nice to us, we have to be unnice to them,” he added. 

Earlier his Thai counterpart, Prayut Chan-O-Cha, echoed the theme of regional cooperation on the RCEP deal, while Philippines’ trade secretary Ramon Lopez said he hoped to have a “very positive report  [on RCEP] come Monday” when the summit ends.

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