Southeast Asian leaders opened a 2-day summit in Bangkok on Saturday, with the US-China trade conflict taking center stage.
There has been less US engagement with the region since President Donald Trump came to power in 2016. Trump also pulled the US out from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), saying it was harmful for the US jobs market.
Analysts say Beijing is trying to dominate the Asia-Pacific trade following Washington’s retreat.
The bloc is weighing a China-drafted commercial deal — a substitute for the TPP — which would cover around half of the world’s population. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) includes all ASEAN member states — Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam — plus India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
“The faster it (RCEP) gets implemented the better,” Martin M Andanar, Philippines communications secretary, told reporters.
“Free trade is definitely what we need here in this region,” he said, admitting that Southeast Asia was wary of a prolonged US-China trade row.
Concerns about China
“RCEP is key to increasing trade volume,” Werachon Sukhondhapatipak, a Thai government spokesman, told media on Saturday.
If the bloc agrees on the China-drafted RCEP deal, it would be the biggest trade agreement in the world.
But India has expressed concerns over the deal, fearing that Chinese goods could flood its massive consumer market as a result of it.
Australia and New Zealand have raised objections to a lack of labor protection and environmental safeguards.
ASEAN is considered a largely ineffective platform, as experts say that diplomatic niceties in the grouping often outweigh concrete actions.
Apart from regional trade, the ASEAN summit participants are also discussing the South China Sea dispute, Myanmar’s persecution of Rohingya Muslims, and the ocean plastic waste problem.