• Reuters, Kyodo

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The Asia-Pacific region kicked off a major trade meeting Saturday to discuss the changing global trade landscape after U.S. President Donald Trump upended the old order with an “America First” policy that has sparked fears of protectionism.

The two-day gathering is the biggest since Trump took office in January and involves ministers from the United States, China, Japan and other members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation grouping, which accounts for more than 40 percent of world trade.

As the meeting kicked off in Hanoi, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc highlighted APEC’s three decades of growth and said: “That’s the proof of our group’s effort on liberalization.”

A draft seen by Reuters of the meeting statement to be issued Sunday also emphasizes free trade.

“In some of our communities there are increasing numbers of people questioning the benefits of globalization and free trade, spurring protectionist trends,” it said.

“Against that backdrop, we reaffirm our commitment to promote trade and investment liberalization.”

The conflicts in the visions are evident in discussions on the sidelines.

New U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who has been taking a hard line on Tokyo, met with trade minister Hiroshige Seko on Saturday on the sidelines of the APEC meeting. Seko told reporters afterward that Lighthizer has agreed to establish “high level” trade standards to promote a bilateral trade deal and bolster economic growth.

“We have agreed that the two countries will work together to promote mutually beneficial trade, tackle trade barriers and trade-distorting measures, and create high-level standards,” Seko said.

They also shared concerns about “unfair trade practices by a third nation,” Seko added in an apparent reference to China.

Lighthizer was expected to hold more individual meetings with other counterparts at the meeting.

China, putting itself forward as a champion of global free trade in light of the U.S. shift, will be pushing a free trade agreement to encompass the vast majority of Asia’s economies. The deal it favors is called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

Officials said Southeast Asia still has significant points of disagreement on RCEP with China, India, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea. The U.S. has never been party to those discussions.

Japan is leading a group of countries that wants to revive the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that Trump ditched as one of his first acts in office. The TPP excludes China but has a much broader scope than the trade agreement favored by Beijing.

Japan has started to pave the way for creating an 11-member version of the TPP to establish high-level rules on trade in the Asia-Pacific even without the U.S.

After arriving in Hanoi Friday, TPP chief Nobuteru Ishihara held a series of bilateral meetings to explain Tokyo’s eagerness to form a consensus on how to keep the free trade pact alive with the other 10 signatories later this year.

Ishihara agreed with Vietnamese Trade and Industry Minister Tran Tuan Anh to work on making the TPP ministerial gathering scheduled in Hanoi on Sunday a success, a government official said.

“We talked in a very good atmosphere,” Ishihara told reporters after the bilateral meeting.

Meanwhile, Malaysian Trade Minister Mustapa Mohamed separately said there is optimism that the U.S. will return to the TPP one day, as Trump has shown a readiness to shift his position on other matters, such as his hard stance on China.

“There has been less rhetoric and a more realistic approach,” he said.

Later Friday, Ishihara held talks with his Peruvian and Mexican counterparts.

Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo told reporters after meeting with Ishihara that most of the 11 ministers would “be able to get a clear view” of how to proceed with the TPP without the U.S.

Ministers from the 11 members were scheduled to hold a one-day meeting, cochaired by Vietnam and New Zealand, on the sidelines of the APEC gathering.

Australia and New Zealand have aligned with Japan, but Vietnam and Malaysia have suggested they disagree with Tokyo’s proposal as they had hoped to take advantage of increased trade with the U.S. to expand their economies.

Mexico and Canada are believed to be reluctant to irritate Washington by joining an 11-nation TPP because they want to avoid renegotiating the trilateral North American Free Trade Agreement, which is a bigger immediate priority for Washington.

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