Talks on Pacific Rim trade pact resume minus US

Tran Van Minh and Elaine Kurtenbach
Associated Press

Danang, Vietnam — Talks aimed at salvaging a Pacific Rim trade pact rejected by President Donald Trump resumed Thursday on the sidelines of the annual summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

Trade and foreign ministers of 11 members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership were seeking to agree in principle on how to proceed without U.S. involvement after Trump pulled out from the formerly U.S.-led initiative earlier this year.

Trump and other leaders are heading to Vietnam for the 21-member APEC summit, which begins Friday in this coastal resort city.

As a developing country with a fast-growing export sector, Vietnam has a strong interest in the TPP’s success. At the outset of Thursday’s meeting, Tran Tuan Anh, the trade minister, emphasized “the importance of reaching an agreement in principle right here.”

Japan and Australia likewise have shown strong enthusiasm for reaching a framework agreement that drops a requirement that it be ratified by at least six member countries with a combined GDP equal to 85 percent of the original accord. Since the U.S. GDP accounted for 60 percent of that total, its withdrawal meant the pact had to be amended.

It’s unclear if the TPP members will manage to reach a consensus on the trade pact that was billed by the administration of former President Barrack Obama as the “gold standard” for trade rules for the 21st century. While APEC operates by consensus and customarily issues nonbinding statements, TPP commitments would eventually be ratified and enforced by its members.

In Danang, reaching agreement on a draft of even the nonbinding APEC declaration appeared to be a struggle.

APEC foreign and trade ministers extended their talks for an extra morning Thursday as the officials sought to close gaps in their positions. It was unclear what those sticking points might have been.

But the U.S. pushback on “free trade,” evidenced in “America first” policy, has raised eyebrows in the region after decades of U.S. pressure on opening markets.

“Over the last year, things have changed a lot,” Alan Bollard, executive director of the Singapore-based APEC Secretariat, said in an interview. “The new U.S. administration does have a markedly different view about trade policies and regional economic integration,” he said. “We’re trying to get more clarity about what they’re comfortable with and what the response of other members is.”

For Vietnam, the summit is an occasion to showcase the progress its economy has made thanks largely to foreign investment and trade. Danang, Vietnam’s third largest city, is in the midst of a construction boom as dozens of resorts and smaller hotels pop up along its scenic coastline.

The country is a major garment exporter and the largest production base for Samsung Electronics’ mobile phones.

But even though its economy grew at a brisk 6.2 percent pace last year, its GDP per capita is still one of the lowest among APEC members at less than $2,200. Many of its 95 million people remain poor and vulnerable to natural disasters such as storms that lashed the coast near Danang just days before the APEC meetings.

APEC’s members are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, the U.S. and Vietnam.