ASEAN, EU close ranks in face of trade war threat

Family photo at the ASEAN-EU Ministerial meeting in Singapore. [European Commission]

Southeast Asia and Europe stressed the importance of pushing back against protectionism and the threat of global trade wars on Friday (3 August), as their ministers work towards the eventual goal of a region-to-region free trade pact.

The US is embroiled in trade spats with China and close allies including the European Union, imposing tit-for-tat tariffs on billions of dollars worth of goods and heightening fears of economic pain that could spread worldwide.

At a meeting in Singapore, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini assured her Southeast Asian counterparts that they could count on Europe as a free trade partner.

“We stand on the side of a free and fair trade that benefits all, instead of damaging trade wars,” she told reporters at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) forum.

Mogherini voiced hope that bilateral trade accords the EU is negotiating with several ASEAN states “will be the stepping stone towards a future region-to-region deal”.

Washington escalated the trade row this week by saying it was considering more than doubling threatened tariffs on a range of Chinese imports worth $200 billion.

The US has already imposed 25% tariffs on $34 billion in Chinese goods, with another $16 billion to be targeted in the coming weeks.

“There’s been unanimity of concern over looming trade wars because as we know in a war there are no winners,” Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano told reporters.

“And worse, sometimes you’re not in the war but you’re gravely affected. And when we talk about a trade war, we’re talking about actual jobs of real people,” Cayetano stressed.

ASEAN, a 10-nation region of 650 million people with some of the world’s fastest growing emerging economies, has been keenly forging free-trade pacts among its members and regional trading partners.

The EU and ASEAN launched talks towards a trade pact in 2007, but the EU opted out of the process two years later — partly due to problems with then-military ruled Myanmar.

Both both sides agreed to reboot trade ties last year.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah also warned that Southeast Asia would suffer from a trade war.

“All of ASEAN member states are trading states… Our concern is if the trade war were to continue, we will be affected in one way or the other,” he said.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said that by the end of the year he hopes to complete a massive China-backed regional trade pact that has taken centre stage as US President Donald Trump embarks on a unilateral, protectionist agenda.

The 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) notably excludes the US, which had been leading another regional trade pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), until Trump abruptly abandoned it last year.

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