Pacific leaders urged to defend free trade after Trump win

By AFP/Sam Reeves   November 18, 2016 | 08:20 pm PT
"There is no doubt that if the TPP fails it will be a huge win for China, politically and economically."

A summit of top world leaders was urged Friday to defend free trade from rising protectionism after Donald Trump's election victory stoked fears that years of tearing down barriers to global commerce could be reversed.

Trump, who triumphed in last week's U.S. presidential vote, successfully tapped the anger of working-class voters who feel left behind by globalization, vowing to protect American jobs against cheap labor in countries like China and Mexico.

As a summit of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group got under way, host President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski of Peru urged the region's leaders to robustly defend free trade, while the U.S. sought to reassure worried allies.

"In the U.S, and Britain, protectionist tendencies are taking over," Kuczynski told APEC leaders.

"It is fundamental that world trade grow again and that protectionism be defeated."

Trump's victory came after Britain's surprise "Brexit" vote in June to leave the European Union, adding to deep uncertainty about the post-war world order and the future of free trade.

The sentiment also exists on a far smaller scale in Peru, where several dozen protesters -- including Amazon natives in indigenous headdress, gathered Friday in Lima to condemn free trade agreements and the "capitalist beast."

Trump has notably vowed to scuttle U.S. President Barack Obama's key trade initiative in the Asia-Pacific, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), leaving a vacuum that China, which was excluded from the deal, is keen to fill.

A delegate at ministerial meetings held on Thursday and Friday said APEC ministers had expressed concern over growing protectionism in the United States, and that the mood had been somber.

The official, who asked not to be named, said U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman had sought to assure ministers that American core interests don't change from administration to administration.

"Unequivocal message"

Trump is not at the summit but he looms large over the meeting of APEC, a free-trade club founded in 1989 that represents nearly 40 percent of the world's population and nearly 60 percent of the global economy.

In a clear jab at the billionaire mogul's anti-trade stance, Kuczynski said that "anyone who wants to promote protectionism (should) read an economic history of the 1930s."

The center-right economist urged his fellow leaders to deliver an "unequivocal message" in support of free trade.

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong echoed the sentiment, urging more, not less, trade in the face of "a nativist response in developed countries by those who blame globalization for making them worse off."

The U.S. election has left China, a country the United States once considered a threat to free-market capitalism, as the unlikely leader of the movement for open trade.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is holding a strong hand as he meets Obama and other APEC leaders this week.

"There is no doubt that if the TPP fails it will be a huge win for China, politically and economically," said Brian Jackson, a China economist at consultancy IHS Global Insight.

Even longtime U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific region now say they are keen to get on board with Chinese-backed alternatives to TPP.

Beijing is pushing an APEC-wide Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) and a 16-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which includes India but not the United States.

World business leaders gathered on the sidelines of the summit bemoaned TPP's "grim prospects" and urged governments to pour resources into FTAAP, said Sun Xiao, an official with the China Chamber of International Commerce.

And amid mounting criticism that globalization has benefitted only the wealthiest, IMF chief Christine Lagarde defended trade as a major engine of growth.

"We hope it continues to be -- but it has to be inclusive growth," she added.

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