Japan pushes Asia economies to discuss trade pact amid rising protectionism

Kyodo, AP

Ministers from 16 Asia-Pacific countries gathered Sunday in Tokyo for one-day talks on advancing negotiations for the creation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a pact aimed at becoming an alternative to the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade grouping U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned last year. Japan is co-chairing the RCEP negotiations along with Singapore.

The members including Japan, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations apparently saw a growing need to step up efforts to bridge gaps and aim for “a package of year-end outcomes,” pointing to “serious risks” from trade restrictive steps.

“The ministers recognized the importance of swiftly and successfully concluding RCEP negotiations,” the nations said in a statement issued after their meeting.

The trade chiefs reaffirmed their resolve “in view of the current global trade environment, which faces serious risks from unilateral trade actions and reactions, as well as their debilitating implications on the multilateral trading system,” the statement said.

Negotiators at the meeting sought to narrow down contentious points and bridge differences in categories such as tariff reductions, intellectual property rights and e-commerce.

During a news conference after the session, trade minister Hiroshige Seko said RCEP member countries now aim to reach a basic agreement on free trade rules by the end of this year. “Now, a road map for negotiations has become clearer,” Seko said.

Speaking at a joint news conference, Singapore’s Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said the participating countries hope to see a “substantive conclusion” by the end of the year.

“We hope that with the successful conclusion of RCEP we will send a strong and powerful signal to the world that the countries involved continue to believe in free and open trade,” Chan said.

In opening remarks, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for an early conclusion to the RCEP pact that ensures free and rules-based commerce in the face of an increasingly protectionist United States under Trump.

“As we are faced with concerns of the rise of protectionism in the world, all of us in Asia must unite, and our future depends on whether we can keep hoisting our flagship principle of free and fair trade,” Abe told the meeting. He said RCEP is increasingly getting more attention from the rest of the world amid concerns of protectionism, so “let us be as one and achieve a free, fair and rules-based market in this region.”

Trump, who prefers bilateral deals, pulled the U.S. out of the TPP, leaving the remaining 11 countries from Chile to New Zealand to work on a revamped version of that pact.

Trump has imposed high tariffs on steel and aluminum imports and has threatened to add automobiles to reduce America’s trade deficit. He has singled out China’s products, prompting fears of a trade war.

Japan, already hit by increased U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs, has told the World Trade Organization it may retaliate against U.S. goods totaling about ¥50 billion ($450 million). Japan’s government Friday warned the U.S. Department of Commerce that a higher U.S. tariff on auto imports could backfire, jeopardizing hundreds of thousands of American jobs created by Japanese automobile industry-related companies, raising prices for U.S. consumers and causing a disaster for the United States and global economy.

Trump’s moves have resonated in Asia, where many countries have prospered thanks to free trade and the expansion of global supply chains.

Members of the RCEP initiative, launched in 2013, however still struggle with issues including tariffs, trade in services and investment rules, as well as protection for intellectual property rights. Japan is also cautious about China’s influence. China, which is not part of the TPP, plays a key role in RCEP.

RCEP also includes Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, India and South Korea.