July 22, 2019
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ASEAN leaders oppose protectionism amid US-China trade war

By Noel Caballero

Bangkok, Jun 23 (efe-epa).- The summit of Association of Southeast Asian Nations concluded on Sunday in Bangkok, with leaders making progress on environmental and security matters amid a trade war between the United States and China.

Representatives from Brunei, Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore and Vietnam attended the 34th summit of the bloc in the capital of Thailand, which concluded on Sunday.

"We remained concerned over the unabating tide of protectionism and antiglobalization sentiments that continue to plague the global economy and put the multilateral trading system under threat," a joint statement said.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who presided over the meeting, pointed out the urgency to conclude, before the end of the year, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a mega-free trade treaty with other six partners which would create the biggest economic alliance in the world.

"The summit has helped to reiterate the importance of strengthening the region's economy... in times of uncertainty and trade tensions among the most important ASEAN partners," he said in his closing speech.

The RCEP - which seeks to bring together almost 40 percent of world's GDP - began to be negotiated in 2012, promoted by China as an alternative to the multilateral agreements favored by the US, before the arrival of President Donald Trump in the White House with his protectionist policy.

In addition to China and ASEAN members, Australia, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand are participating in RCEP negotiations, which aims to create a joint market for 3.4 billion people.

"The US and China must both take the high road and resolve their differences before the situation spirals out of control. And we in ASEAN must strengthen our support for a rules-based and open multilateral trading system," the Philippines president, Rodrigo Duterte, said during the ASEAN leaders' event.

One of the advances of the summit was the so-called "Bangkok Declaration" which aims to fight garbage dumping in the seas, although it failed to detail the mechanisms to reach this goal.

Four ASEAN members, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand, are considered, along with China, to be responsible for half of the plastic pollution in the world's oceans.

The countries also agreed to strengthen the fight against illegal trafficking of wild animals, in a region with a rich biodiversity of animals and plants, and move towards a "green economy" and job opportunities that promote sustainability.

Political leaders also discussed the Rohingya crisis, which was started in 2017 with a Myanmar army operation in the west of the country that has caused some 728,000 members of the ethnic minority to flee their homes into neighboring Bangladesh.

The ASEAN chairman's final statement urged Myanmar authorities to "facilitate the voluntary return of displaced persons in a safe, secure and dignified manner," but without citing the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group that has been subjected to discrimination for years.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah asked his counterparts to bring justice to those responsible for the crisis, which UN representatives described as "ethnic cleansing with genocide signs."

The summit's final statement added: "We expect that the independent commission of inquiry established by the government of Myanmar would seek accountability by carrying out an independent and impartial investigation into alleged human rights violations and related issues."

As for security matters, ASEAN leaders reiterated their commitment to fight against cross-border crime and to progress, before the end of the year, in the presentation of the first draft of the "Code of Conduct" over the South China Sea, an area where there are territorial claims by Brunei, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Taiwan.

Manila announced on Saturday that it accepts the proposal of Beijing to jointly investigate the accident between fishermen of both countries that occurred in disputed waters in June, after Vietnam, one of the countries that have criticized the position of China, published an alleged video of the incident.

ASEAN also announced its intention to present a joint bid to organize the 2034 FIFA World Cup soccer tournament. EFE-EPA

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