Protectionism slammed as Southeast Asian leaders rally to trade pact

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Trade has topped the agenda at the Bangkok meeting

Trade has topped the agenda at the Bangkok meeting (AFP Photo/TANG CHHIN Sothy)

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

A controversial repatriation plan for the persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority and ongoing disputes over the South China Sea will also be tackled by leaders at the final day of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit.

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

Thailand, which is chairing ASEAN this year, rallied against global protectionism and called for urgency in concluding talks on RCEP -- a China-led trade pact, which once inked will be the world's biggest.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (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 Sunday.

"ASEAN must hold our hands tightly in negotiating... on the RCEP, so it is concluded this year. It will help off-set any impact from the ongoing trade conflict."

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.

The trade war between the world's biggest two economies have sent reverberations across the world, said Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

The two countries "must both take the high road and resolve their differences before the situation spirals out of control", warned Duterte during an ASEAN leaders meeting Saturday.

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.

Australia and New Zealand have also raised concerns over a lack of labour and environmental safeguards.

- Plastic pollution -

The leaders also adopted a "Bangkok Declaration" to combat maritime debris, including plastic waste, in one of the most polluted waters in the world.

But disputes in the flashpoint South China Sea and Myanmar's persecution of Rohingya Muslims are expected to be tussled over on Sunday.

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.

But Malaysia on Saturday called for the perpetrators of the persecution of the Rohingya to be brought to "justice."

More than 740,000 of the stateless minority have fled Myanmar following a crackdown by its security forces in 2017.

Their repatriation to Myanmar "must include the citizenship", Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Bin Abdullah said according to a tweet by his ministry.

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

The crisis has spread across the region with boatloads of refugees arriving on the shores of Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia.

ASEAN has come under fire for suggesting the refugees should go back to Myanmar within two years, according to a leaked report seen by AFP -- though virtually none have volunteered to return so far, citing safety concerns.

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