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World leaders to push for completion of trade deal at summit

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SINGAPORE: World leaders will push for the rapid completion of a massive, China-backed trade deal that excludes the US, at a summit this week, in a rebuke to rising protectionism and US President 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 US absent from the deal, but Mr Trump is skipping the summit in Singapore, highlighting how far he has pulled back from efforts to shape global trade rules and raising more questions about Washington's commitment to Asia.

Mr Trump launched his unilateralist trade policy shortly after taking office by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a deal spearheaded by his predecessor Barack Obama that aimed to bind growing Asian powers into a US-backed order to counter China.

His approach has left the floor open for Beijing to promote a rival pact it favours, the 16-member RCEP, a free trade deal that aims to cut tariffs and integrate markets but gives weaker protection in areas such as employment and the environment.

The pact championed by Mr Obama has been kept alive even without the US 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", said Ms Deborah Elms, executive director of the Asian Trade Centre.

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.

TRADE DISPUTE

The gathering of 20 world leaders comes against a backdrop of a months-long trade dispute between China and the US after Mr Trump imposed tariffs on most Chinese imports this summer, and Beijing retaliated with its own levies.

The stand-off is having an impact far beyond the US and China, and leaders at the four days of meetings that begin today will be keen to voice their grievances to US Vice-President Mike Pence, attending in Mr Trump's place, and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

Mr Trump's absence from the Singapore gathering and a subsequent meeting of world leaders in Papua New Guinea is even more notable given that Mr Obama was a regular participant. - AFP

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