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Protectionism slammed as leaders rally to trade pact

Thailand calls for urgency in concluding talks on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership

"The winds of protectionism are hurting our multilateral trading system," says Mr Prayut. "Asean must hold our hands tightly in negotiating... on the RCEP, so it is concluded this year."


THAILAND'S premier made an impassioned plea against protectionism on Sunday at a meeting of South-east Asian leaders where the fallout from the US-China tariff war has dominated talks.

Ongoing tussles in the disputed South China Sea and a controversial plan to repatriate the persecuted Rohingya minority were also tackled by leaders at the final day of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit.

But trade topped the agenda at the Bangkok meeting, as tit-for-tat tariffs between China and the US cast a dark cloud over global growth.

Experts say Asean's export-led markets could be dented by any drop-off in spending by the world's two biggest economies - even if some countries have seen short-term gains as companies relocate from China.

Thailand, which is chairing Asean this year, railed against global protectionism and called for urgency in concluding talks on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) - a China-led trade pact, which once inked will be the world's biggest.

RCEP includes all 10 Asean economies, plus India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

"The winds of protectionism are hurting our multilateral trading system," Thailand's junta leader-turned-premier Prayut Chan-o-cha said on Sunday. "Asean must hold our hands tightly in negotiating... on the RCEP, so it is concluded this year. It will help offset any impact from the ongoing trade conflict."

He said the bloc would carry their trade concerns to a G-20 meeting in Japan next week, hoping to "solve this problem as soon as possible".

RCEP is seen as a mechanism for China to draft the rules of Asia-Pacific trade, following a US retreat from the region as it withdrew from another trade pact at the start of President Donald Trump's administration.

But progress on RCEP has stuttered in recent months, with India digging in over fears the cheap Chinese goods could flood its massive consumer markets.

Asean leaders often put out an image of unity during the annual summits.

But the forum has been criticised for allowing diplomatic niceties to outweigh concrete action on the sharpest problems facing the region.

One of those is the return of Rohingya Muslims to Myanmar from squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh, where more than 740,000 have fled since a 2017 army crackdown on the stateless minority.

Malaysia has been the bloc's most outspoken member on the issue.

On Saturday, its foreign minister Saifuddin Bin Abdullah said repatriation of Rohingya to Myanmar "must include the citizenship", according to a tweet by his ministry.

That flies in the face of Myanmar's official policy, which denies the Rohingya full citizenship and the accompanying rights, instead labelling them "Bengalis" - illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

Asean has come under fire for suggesting the refugees will return to Myanmar within two years. Virtually none have volunteered to return so far, citing safety concerns and lack of citizenship.

A final statement from the weekend summit said that Asean leaders supported Myanmar's efforts to "facilitate the voluntary return of displaced persons in a safe, secure and dignified manner".

The final statement did not use the term Rohingya.

Asean leaders also endorsed the "Bangkok Declaration" to combat maritime debris in one of the most polluted regions in the world.

But with only vague promises to "prevent and significantly reduce marine debris" - and no mention of any ban on single-use plastics - environmentalists said it falls far short of what's needed.

Ongoing disputes in the flashpoint South China Sea also emerged at the summit, where the Philippines protested Beijing's sweeping claims in the resource-rich waterway.

China does not belong to the Asean bloc, but some of its members are seen to side with Beijing on thorny maritime issues.

A Filipino boat recently sank in the sea after it was rammed by a Chinese ship, though Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte refused to criticise Beijing over the dust-up. Instead, Mr Duterte planned to "raise the issue of what is the basis of China claiming an entire sea" at the weekend summit, Philippines presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said. AFP

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