LIMA: Asia-Pacific leaders are expected to send a strong message in defense of free trade Sunday as they wrap up a summit that has been overshadowed by US President-elect Donald Trump’s protectionism. The broad consensus at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, which features some of the world’s most powerful leaders on both sides of the Pacific, is that free trade is a force for good. But the assembled leaders – US President Barack Obama, China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Japan’s Shinzo Abe and others — are under pressure to defend that view against a rising tide of populist, anti-globalization sentiment in the United States and Europe. The summit in Lima, Peru will be briefed Sunday morning on the state of the world economy by International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde. It will then issue its closing statement later in the day. A draft seen by AFP praises open markets, denounces protectionism and warns that curbing free trade will slow the ongoing recovery of the world economy.
But it is a far cry from the fiery language and visceral appeals Trump used on the campaign trail to whip working-class supporters into a frenzy. The brash billionaire’s attacks on free trade deals and vows to cut back the US role as “policeman of the world” are causing jitters in the Pacific Rim. Trump has vowed to kill Obama’s signature trade initiative in the region, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP – an arduously negotiated 12-country agreement. He campaigned against the proposal as a “terrible deal” that would “rape” the United States by sending American jobs to countries with cheaper labor. In a Pacific region hungry for trade, that has left even longtime US allies looking to a once unlikely place to fill the void: China, which was excluded from TPP. China’s Xi has set himself up as the anti-Trump at this week’s summit, defending open markets and offering leadership on alternative free trade agreements to rival TPP.
That has all made it an uncomfortable summit for Obama, who is facing awkward questions from allies about the future of US policy in his last foreign visit as president. Despite attacking Trump as an unfit successor during the campaign, Obama urged the world to give the president-elect time to get his feet under the desk. “How you campaign isn’t always the same as how you govern,” he told a townhall meeting of young Latin Americans in Lima, defending democracy even as he admitted it can be “frustrating.” Xi, meanwhile, warned that Trump’s win has created a “hinge moment” in US-China ties, as he held his final meeting with President Obama Saturday. Obama described the relationship between the two leading economies as “the most consequential in the world.” Washington and Beijing compete for influence in the Asia-Pacific.
During a vitriol-filled campaign, Trump frequently took a combative stance against China, blaming Beijing for “inventing” climate change and rigging the rules of trade. It is unclear whether there is any future for the arduously negotiated TPP. Some experts say Trump’s attacks on the agreement and his Republican allies’ control of Congress mean it is dead in the water. Others say the deal-making real estate mogul could negotiate a number of changes and then claim credit for turning it around. As alternatives, China is backing a free trade zone across APEC — a 21-member group that accounts for nearly 40 percent of the world’s population and nearly 60 percent of the global economy. It is also pushing a 16-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that excludes the United States.