[SINGAPORE] Southeast Asian leaders are expected to rally against protectionism at a summit in Singapore this weekend amid fears that tit-for-tat tariffs between the US and China could escalate into a global trade war.
A region of around 650 million people, Southeast Asia is home to some of the world's fastest growing economies, thanks largely to the benefits of free and open trade.
But officials and analysts have warned that an escalation of trade tensions between the world's two biggest economies poses a risk to the region's growth outlook.
Leaders from the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) are expected to pledge to fight protectionism when they meet in the city-state on Saturday, according to a draft of their final statement seen by AFP.
The statement warns of "uncertainties surrounding global economic recovery, the rising trends of protectionism, and global policy uncertainties".
"We reiterated our strong commitment to open and inclusive regionalism, free and open markets and underscored the critical importance of the rules-based multilateral trading system," it says.
US President Donald Trump sent shock waves around the world last month when he imposed tariffs on steel and aluminium imports.
He also authorised tariffs on about US$50 billion worth of Chinese exports in response to Beijing's alleged theft of American intellectual property.
Beijing has responded by slapping duties on key US agricultural exports, in measures intended to target the American president's support base - and could also do so for the sensitive US soybean industry.
Mr Trump accuses China of driving up a yawning, US$337 billion trade deficit with the United States through unfair trade practices.
The leaders will also welcome Friday's historic summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korea's President Moon Jae-in while calling on Pyongyang to get rid of its atomic weapons.
On the disputed South China Sea, the leaders are expected to take note of "the concerns expressed by some leaders 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".
Four Asean states - Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - have laid partial claims to the sea, pitting them against China which asserts sovereignty over almost the entire area.
China rankled its smaller neighbours when it carried out massive land reclamations in the sea, and is now putting up structures, which analysts say include runways and military facilities.