World leaders will push for the rapid completion of a massive, China-backed trade deal that excludes the U.S. at a summit this week, in a rebuke to rising protectionism and Donald Trump's "America First" agenda. China, Japan, India and other Asia-Pacific countries could announce a broad agreement on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which covers half the world's population, on the sidelines of the annual gathering.
Not only is the U.S. absent from the deal, but Trump is skipping the summit in Singapore, highlighting how far he has pulled back from efforts to shape global trade rules and raising further questions about Washington's commitment to Asia. Trump launched his unilateralist trade policy with a bang shortly after coming to office by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a deal spearheaded by predecessor Barack Obama that aimed to bind fast-growing Asian powers into an American-backed order to counter China.
His approach has left the floor open for Beijing to promote a rival pact it favors, the 16-member RCEP, a free trade deal which also aims to cut tariffs and integrate markets, but gives weaker protection in areas including employment and the environment. The pact championed by Obama has been kept alive even without the U.S. and is due to go into force this year, but the Beijing-backed pact has now overtaken it as the world's biggest.
Announcing in Singapore that talks for the deal - which formally began in 2012 - are mostly concluded would be "important as a symbol of Asia's commitment to trade at a time of rising global tensions," Deborah Elms, executive director of the Asian Trade Center, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
She said negotiations in some areas were likely to continue into next year, however, while a diplomat attending the summit, speaking anonymously, said "substantial progress" had been made but there were still sticking points.
The gathering of 20 world leaders comes against a backdrop of a months-long trade dispute between China and the United States after Trump imposed tariffs on most Chinese imports this summer, and Beijing retaliated with its own levies. The standoff is having an impact far beyond the U.S. and China, and leaders at the four days of meetings that begin today will be keen to voice their grievances to Vice President Mike Pence, attending in Trump's place, and Premier Li Keqiang.