BANGKOK (AN) — Ten nations' leaders agreed on Sunday as part of a prominent Southeast Asian intergovernmental organization to promote regional stability by signing the world's biggest trade bloc with six other countries including China in 2020.
The leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, "welcomed the conclusion" of negotiations to lower trade barriers through a proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the ASEAN chair, Thailand, said in a final statement.
ASEAN's members — Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam — committed to signing the deal next year.
The 16-nation deal also includes Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. It would cover 30% of global GDP and a regional market of almost 650 million people. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi were among the world leaders at the ASEAN summit.
"This will significantly contribute to an open, inclusive and rules-based international trading system and expansion of value chains," said the ASEAN chairman's statement at the conclusion of a summit sponsored by Thailand in Bangkok.
At the summit, hosted by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-cha of Thailand, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres urged ASEAN to also “confront the world’s climate emergency.” He noted that some of the international organization's members are among the countries most affected by hotter average global temperatures.
"This region is highly vulnerable, particularly to rising sea-levels, with catastrophic consequences for low-lying communities, as recently published research illustrated," Guterres said in a statement.
Chinese power play
Proponents of the trade deal said it could help ease trade tensions elsewhere including the U.S.-China trade war sparked by U.S. President Donald Trump's punishing tariffs. But while Trump skipped the summit and sent his national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, in his absence, China's Li spread a message that Beijing was committed to a regional trade deal.
“Given the complexity in the international and regional situation, our cooperation is built on a stable structure and moving forward in a positive fashion,” said Li. "We support stability in the region, and by doing so we have been able to cope with the instability elsewhere in the world."
Some ASEAN members, however, have tangled with China over trade and territorial issues. China has been accused of delaying the trade talks for years so it can send fishing boats into disputed waters and populate contested reefs with military encampments built on artificial islands.
Vietnam, for example, pushed for ASEAN's final statement to mention that China appeared bent on encroaching on other nations' rights in the South China Sea.
In the end, the statement contained an unspecific reference to "some concerns on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region."