APEC ministers say free and fair trade key for economic recovery

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Ministers from Asia-Pacific countries on Tuesday said free, fair and non-discriminatory trade practices were key to an economic recovery from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Ministers from the 21 countries in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group also said in a joint statement that any emergency trade measures designed to address COVID-19 should be targeted, proportionate and not create unnecessary barriers to trade.

“We recognise the importance of a free, open, fair, non-discriminatory, transparent and predictable trade and investment environment to drive economic recovery at such a challenging time,” the ministers said.

APEC members last issued a joint ministerial statement in 2017. Disagreements derailed discussions in Papua New Guinea in 2018 and deadly riots forced hosts Chile to cancel last year’s summit.

Officials began top-level meetings this week as host Malaysia organised the first virtual summit, with the pandemic all but halting international travel.

APEC leaders are scheduled to meet on Friday and another joint statement is expected then.

Malaysia’s trade minister, Azmin Ali - who chaired Monday’s APEC ministerial meeting - said members had some disagreements over the “level of ambition” in pursuing the bloc’s post-2020 vision, which would replace the 1994 Bogor Goals - a set of targets on reducing barriers to trade and investment agreed in Bogor, Indonesia - which expire this year.

“There were also divergent views regarding the need to strengthen multilateral trading systems and deepen economic integration in pursued free trade agreements,” Azmin told a virtual news conference.

He did not elaborate.

At the last APEC meeting in 2018, the countries failed to agree on a communique for the first time in their history as deep divisions between the United States and China over trade and investment stymied cooperation.

Fifteen Asia-Pacific economies signed an agreement to form the world’s largest free trade bloc the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) on Sunday, a China-backed deal that excludes the United States, which under President Donald Trump quit the rival Trans-Pacific Partnership grouping.

Reporting by Joseph Sipalan; additional reporting by A. Ananthalakshmi; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Alex Richardson