Warnings of a domino effect of protectionism as Asian leaders meet

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President Moon Jae-in left for Singapore Tuesday for annual summits with Southeast Asian nations and their dialogue partners as he strives to bolster relations with the region and drum up worldwide support for his initiative for peace with North Korea.

Asean is working closely with its partners to support the open, rules-based global order and multilateral system, and has recently concluded recommendations for a general review of the Asean-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday (Nov 14).

"It will take a little bit longer to ensure that we get the type of substantial, meaningful, commercially meaningful market access decisions that Australia expects in a trade agreement", Australian Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Simon Birmingham told reporters in Singapore yesterday.

"It's going to deliver real benefits for the people of our region".

"With the strong momentum generated this year, I am pleased to note that the RCEP negotiations are poised for conclusion in 2019", he added.

Commerce and industry minister Suresh Prabhu is meeting his counterparts to "continue to exert all efforts towards meeting the targets set".

Among his 11 schedules, Duterte only attended the Asean-China Summit, Signing Ceremony for the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Eurasian Economic Commission and ASEAN on Economic Cooperation, Asean-Russia Summit, Asean-Japan Summit and a bilateral meeting with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Shien Loong. He would hold a bilateral meeting with US Vice President Mike Pence on November 14, the External Affairs Ministry had said here earlier.

That deal was spearheaded by his predecessor Barack Obama and aimed to bind fast-growing Asian powers into an American-backed order to counter China.

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China's escalating trade war and geopolitical rivalry with the U.S. has given it added impetus to conclude the RCEP talks, which began in 2013.

"RCEP must facilitate not only the interest of big firms, but also the SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises] in the region", Mahathir said.

"Despite this, Asean has shown that it's still able to work together and find common ground".

A China-backed bid to complete the world's largest trade deal - without the United States - was pushed back to next year after Asia-Pacific trade ministers failed to agree key terms at a Singapore summit.

During the three-day visit, Moon is scheduled to attend a trio of annual summits hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations - a Korea-ASEAN summit, an ASEAN Plus Three summit also involving China and Japan and the broader East Asia Summit. "This is not the time to close our doors by invoking trade protectionism measures but instead we should be actively engaged in finding amicable solutions", Mahathir said.

Analysts said future RCEP talks could be complicated by potential changes of government in some countries such as Australia, India, Indonesia and Thailand, where elections are due next year.

Philippine Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez, in a statement on Tuesday, said negotiations had "progressed substantially" and "reached the final stage".

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