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Obama defends free trade, eyes legacy at APEC

November 21, 2016

The US President has defended free trade deals at the APEC summit after Donald Trump's victory sparked fears over global commerce. The summit concluded with fellow Asia-Pacific nations pledging to "fight protectionism."

Peru APEC Gipfel Barack Obama Pressekonferenz in Lima
Image: Picture-Alliance/dpa/Epa/E. Arias

In his final foreign press conference, US President Barack Obama urged world leaders on Sunday not to give up on free trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) pact.

"When it comes to trade, I believe the answer is not to pull back," Obama said on the last day of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Lima, Peru.

"The answer is to do trade right, making sure it has strong labor standards, strong environmental standards - that it addresses ways in which workers and ordinary people can benefit rather than be harmed by global trade."

The summit was overshadowed by Donald Trump's surprising electoral victory and his campaign promises to scrap or renegotiate free trade deals.

Obama urged on Sunday that it would be a mistake if the US abandoned TPP. He negotiated the deal during his time in office, but stopped seeking congressional approval on the deal, saying its ratification is now a matter for the incoming Trump administration.

APEC pledge to fight protectionism

The 21 members of APEC closed the summit with a pledge to work toward a sweeping free trade agreement that would include all members, despite the uncertain political climate.

"We reaffirm our commitment to keep our markets open and to fight against all forms of protectionism," the APEC leaders said in a joint statement.

Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski said the main obstacle to free trade agreements around the world is the frustration felt by those who feel left behind by globalization.

"Protectionism in reality is a reflection of tough economic conditions," said Kuczynski, the summit's host.

China is not currently part of TPP, but it has been advocating for an alternative free trade agreement in Asia under the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which currently does not include countries in the Americas.

Seeking to possibly fill the void in leadership on global trade, China said that more countries are now interested in RCEP than TPP. Tan Jian, a senior Chinese delegation member, said Peru and Chile are now interested and that China wishes to reach an agreement soon.

Limits to post-presidential silence

During his press conference on Sunday, Obama also offered a rare glimpse into his post-presidency life, saying he will reserve the right to speak out against Trump if his policies violate certain "values or ideals."

He said he would uphold the longstanding tradition of ex-presidents staying quiet, allowing their successors to govern "without somebody popping off" at every policy decision.

However, he noted that there would be certain limitations to his silence.

"As an American citizen who cares deeply about our country, if there are issues that have less to do with the specifics of some legislative proposal or battle or go to core questions about our values and ideals, and if I think that it's necessary or helpful for me to defend those ideals, I'll examine it when it comes," Obama told reporters.

Members of minority groups have voiced concern over Trump's divisive campaign rhetoric and his administration selections, saying his choices could threaten unity.

Questions about Trump have followed Obama during his final international trip as world leaders and journalists alike queried the President on Trump's stances on foreign policy, trade and the NATO military alliance.

rs/bw (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)