China-backed trade deal center stage at summit as US retreats

The upcoming 33rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit will be held at the Suntec City convention and exhibition center in Singapore. (AFP)
Updated 11 November 2018
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China-backed trade deal center stage at summit as US retreats

  • China, Japan, India and other Asia-Pacific countries could announce a broad agreement on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) at the summit
  • The US is not part of the deal, and is skipping the summit in Singapore

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 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 Trump is skipping the summit in Singapore, highlighting how far he has pulled back from efforts to shape global trade rules and raising further questions about Washington’s commitment to Asia.
Trump launched his unilateralist trade policy with a bang shortly after coming to office by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a deal spearheaded by predecessor Barack Obama that aimed to bind fast-growing Asian powers into an American-backed order to counter China.
His approach has left the floor open for Beijing to promote a rival pact it favors, the 16-member RCEP, a free trade deal which also aims to cut tariffs and integrate markets, but gives weaker protection in areas including employment and the environment.
The pact championed by 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,” Deborah Elms, executive director of the Asian Trade Center, told AFP.
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.
The gathering of 20 world leaders comes against a backdrop of a months-long trade dispute between China and the United States after Trump imposed tariffs on most Chinese imports this summer, and Beijing retaliated with its own levies.
The standoff is having an impact far beyond the US and China, and leaders at the four days of meetings that begin Monday will be keen to voice their grievances to Vice President Mike Pence, attending in Trump’s place, and Premier Li Keqiang.
Trump’s absence from the Singapore gathering and a subsequent meeting of world leaders in Papua New Guinea is even more notable given Obama, who launched a so-called “pivot to Asia” to direct more US economic and military resources to the region, was a regular participant.
Washington, however, argues that it remains committed to Asia, pointing to regular visits by top officials.
“We are fully engaged,” insisted Patrick Murphy, one of the State Department’s most senior Asia diplomats. “That is very sustained and has been enhanced under the current administration.”
Myanmar’s embattled leader Aung San Suu Kyi is attending the meetings, and will deliver a keynote address at a business forum Monday.
She may face criticism over a military crackdown on the Muslim Rohingya that saw hundreds of thousands flee to Bangladesh last year, and has sparked rare criticism of Myanmar from within regional bloc the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Also on the agenda will be North Korea’s nuclear program. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signed a vaguely worded agreement on denuclearization at a historic summit in June, but progress has been slow since.
Pence will also keep on pressure on Beijing over its growing aggression in the South China Sea. China claims almost all the strategically vital waters, a source of friction with Southeast Asian states that have overlapping claims as well as the US, the traditionally dominant military power in the region.
Other leaders attending include Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
But much of the focus will be on the RCEP as leaders seek to send a message in support of free trade. The deal groups the 10 ASEAN members plus China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
World leaders “should present a united front advancing trade liberalization in (the Asia-Pacific) despite global headwinds to trade from the rising tide of global protectionism,” Rajiv Biswas, chief regional economist at IHS Markit, told AFP.


Libya’s National Oil against paying ‘ransom’ to reopen El Sharara field

Updated 14 December 2018
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Libya’s National Oil against paying ‘ransom’ to reopen El Sharara field

  • Ransom payment would set dangerous precedent
  • NOC declared force majeure on exports on Monday

BENGHAZI: Libya’s state-owned National Oil Corp. (NOC) said it was against paying a ransom to an armed group that has halted crude production at the country’s largest oilfield.
“Any attempt to pay a ransom to the armed militia which shut down El Sharara (oilfield) would set a dangerous precedent that would threaten the recovery of the Libyan economy,” NOC Chairman Mustafa Sanalla said in a statement on the company’s website.
NOC on Monday declared force majeure on exports from the 315,000-barrels-per-day oilfield after it was seized at the weekend by a local militia group.
The nearby El-Feel oilfield, which uses the same power supply as El Sharara, was still producing normally, a spokesman for NOC said, without giving an output figure. The field usually pumps around 70,000 bpd.
Since 2013 Libya has faced a wave of blockages of oilfields and export terminals by armed groups and civilians trying to press the country’s weak state into concessions.
Officials have tended to end such action by paying off protesters who demand to be added to the public payroll.
At El Sharara, in southern Libya, a mix of state-paid guards, civilians and tribesmen have occupied the field, camping there since Saturday, protesters and oil workers said. The protesters work in shifts, with some going home at night.
NOC has evacuated some staff by plane, engineers at the oilfield said. A number of sub-stations away from the main field have been vacated and equipment removed.
The occupiers are divided, with members of the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) indicating they would end the blockade in return for a quick cash payment, oil workers say. The PFG has demanded more men be added to the public payroll.
The tribesmen have asked for long-term development funds, which might take time.
Libya is run by two competing, weak governments. Armed groups, tribesmen and normal Libyans tend to vent their anger about high inflation and a lack of infrastructure on the NOC, which they see as a cash cow booking billions of dollars in oil and gas revenues annually.