PRESIDENT Rodrigo R. Duterte on Tuesday called on Southeast Asia to fight protectionism as he endorsed a China-backed free trade agreement widely viewed as a rival to the US-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Speaking to representatives of regional governments during the closing ceremony of the 50th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ministerial meeting in Manila, Mr. Duterte urged the bloc and its partners to “take a serious look at economic integration.”
He then pushed for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a free trade agreement backed by China, and qualified that the TPP, a regional trade pact involving Pacific Rim countries but excluding China, was “a dream that was no longer there.”
“RCEP will provide further impetus to our efforts. Negotiations should conclude swiftly as decided by RCEP leaders in 2016,” Mr. Duterte said.
“As ASEAN governments work to achieve the enabling environment for businesses to thrive, I call on our private sector to play a bigger role in spurring and sustaining growth,” he added.
“Prosperity should not be the right of just a chosen few. It must be a blessing enjoyed by all.”
Shortly after taking office, US President Donald J. Trump, who is pushing an “America First” policy, formally withdrew from the TPP, backed by his predecessor, Barack Obama.
Mr. Trump’s protectionist leanings also created an air of uncertainty over his trade policy, prompting Asia to turn to RCEP, with Beijing aggressively moving to expand its global influence through its ambitious “Belt and Road” initiative, which seeks to recreate historic trading links along the land and sea routes to Europe, known as the Silk Road.
In December, Mr. Duterte threw his support behind Mr. Trump’s move to scrap the TPP, saying the trade deal would create problems for poor Asian countries that rely on generic medicines.
The Philippines chairs this year’s ASEAN meetings, which coincide with the regional bloc’s 50th anniversary. Other member states of the ASEAN are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
In a statement issued yesterday, officials of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) Limited said ASEAN’s 50th year signals a new era for development and investment growth.
“The emphasis on creating better-connected economies to help facilitate trade and investment is extremely important,” said Stuart Tait, HSBC’s Regional Head of Commercial Banking in the Asia Pacific region.
“It will help ASEAN maximize opportunities within the region as well as those stemming from China’s Belt & Road Initiative, which is key to stated ambitions to double bilateral trade between China and ASEAN to $1 trillion by 2020,” Mr. Tait added.
Wick Veloso, HSBC president and CEO for the Philippines, said: “The relations between China and the Philippines allow us to play an important part in the Belt and Road Initiative through infrastructure funding and technical support.”
“We see this as a strategic opportunity to showcase the rise of innovation and the ‘start-up’ ecosystem in the Philippines and the ASEAN region more broadly,” Mr. Veloso added. — Ian Nicolas P. Cigaral