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ASEAN nations defy Trump's trade protectionism

March 18, 2018

The first-ever ASEAN summit in Australia has ended. Southeast Asian nations have called on North Korea to end its nuclear program and taken a firm stance against protectionism in view of Donald Trump's trade policies.

Southeast Asian leaders at the ASEAN 2018 summit in Australia
Image: picture alliance/AAP/dpa/D. Himbrechts

Leaders of Southeast Asian nations concluded a three-day summit in the eastern Australian city of Sydney on Sunday, issuing a number of joint declarations on topics ranging from security to trade.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) called for an end to North Korea's controversial nuclear program and for the nonmilitarization of the contested waters of the South China Sea.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said ASEAN and Australia (which is not a member state) had affirmed their commitment to strongly respond to the "grave concerns we share about North Korea's reckless and illegal nuclear missile programs."

The ASEAN joint statement urged Pyongyang to "immediately and fully comply with its obligations under all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions."

Read more: ASEAN 50 years on: Success or failure?

Chinese 'aggression'

ASEAN leaders also expressed their concerns over China's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, which is contested by a number of nations in the region.

Vietnam remains the most vocal opponent of Beijing's military installations and construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, while the Philippines appeared to have changed its position under its China-friendly president, Rodrigo Duterte.

Australia, which was hosting an ASEAN summit for the first time, and other participants reaffirmed "the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, stability, maritime safety and security, freedom of navigation and overflight in the region," without naming China.

ASEAN leaders said they wanted to see an "early conclusion of an effective code of conduct in the South China Sea."

"We will uphold our commitment to the rules-based order and international law in the region, including the South China Sea," said Turnbull.

Antithesis of protectionism

The ASEAN summit also tackled the US position on international trade, with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong saying the grouping believed that "a free, open and rules-based multilateral trading system is key to the region's growth and prosperity."

The statement follows US President Donald Trump's March 7 announcement of import tariffs to protect domestic steel and aluminum producers on national security grounds.

Lee and Turnbull urged ASEAN to put its weight behind the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a China-backed alternative to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact. Trump withdrew the US from the TPP last year.

"If we secure a good agreement, this would be, as one of our colleagues said this morning, an antithesis of protectionism. It would ensure, on the back of the TPP-11, that the Indo-Pacific continues to be the fulcrum of open and free trade," Turnbull underlined.

Read more:

Australia drifts toward China amid wobbly US ties

China seeks to avoid trade war with US

Myanmar avoids Rohingya condemnation

The Southeast Asian countries also urged Myanmar to protect Rohingya Muslims, who have been fleeing to Bangladesh and other neighboring countries since violent clashes broke out in Myanmar's Rakhine state last year.

ASEAN countries agreed to work closely to provide humanitarian assistance to Rohingya refugees. The summit, however, failed to condemn member state Myanmar.

"We discussed the situation in Rakhine state at considerable length today," Turnbull said at a closing press conference.

"[Myanmar leader] Aung San Suu Kyi addressed the matter comprehensively at some considerable length herself," he added.

"It's a very complex problem … Everyone seeks to end the suffering that has been occasioned by the events, the conflict."

Singaporean PM Lee said that while the Rohingya crisis was a "concern for all ASEAN countries," the grouping "is not able to intervene to force an outcome."

Read more: Myanmar 'militarizing' razed Rohingya villages in Rakhine – Amnesty

shs/tj  (AP, Reuters, AFP)

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