East Asian powerhouses pledge to uphold free trade

China, Japan, S. Korea to push for early RCEP conclusion, promote US-N. Korea dialogue

Three East Asian powerhouses brought early cheer to their Christmas Eve summit yesterday, strongly championing the free trade regime that has been hit by global tensions.

While this is a cause being spearheaded by hosts China, guests Japan and South Korea also agreed to work closely with each other. The two countries had been locked in bitter disputes earlier this year.

Analysts agreed that the warmer dynamics between China, South Korea and Japan augured well for Asia's security and economic prospects, which were dimmed by tensions and a slowdown in the past months.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told reporters in the south-western Chinese city of Chengdu that their "trilateral cooperation has become an important engine for East Asia".

"We all proposed that we have to protect free trade and accelerate the integration of the economy. The protection of free trade will also contribute to world peace," said Mr Li, adding that the leaders also agreed to push for early conclusion of the Asean-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

The leaders also agreed to promote dialogue between the US and North Korea, whose denuclearisation talks have reached a stalemate.

Later, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in also had their first one-on-one meeting in 15 months.

Trade was a key part of the agenda in the wake of the recent face-off between the United States and China, which has contributed to a global slowdown. The trade ministers of all three countries have agreed to work towards a three-way free trade deal.

Their consensus on trade comes as trade tensions between China and the US continue to simmer - despite reaching a "phase one" trade agreement earlier this month.

"We would like to collaborate more with Japan and (South Korea) so we can bring into full play the advantages of the consumer market of China. Enterprises from Japan and (South Korea) could help to create more jobs and gain benefits, and they also allow the Chinese consumers to have more options in the market," said Mr Li.

Mr Abe said Japan was willing to collaborate with both neighbours and Asean to "take trade to a new level". Mr Moon said he hoped the summit would be considered "a milestone of our collaboration".


Tongji University assistant professor Young-June Chung said cooperating with China on trade was a "win-win" for all three countries.

"President Xi (Jinping) has made it pretty clear that China is going to be the front runner of global free trade, as opposed to (US President Donald) Trump who is pursuing protectionist trade policies. I don't think Japan and South Korea cooperating on trade with the Chinese necessarily means they are embracing China's sphere of influence - it's in their economic interest," he said.

Both Japan and South Korea are military allies of the US. But bilateral relations between both sides have hit rock bottom over trade issues and disputes over wartime compensation by Japan.

S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies associate research fellow Shawn Ho said it was a positive sign that Mr Abe and Mr Moon were meeting face to face.

"It also shows the role of China in bringing these two countries together. It would be much more difficult to have a summit in Japan or South Korea - it shows the usefulness of these trilateral or multilateral meetings," he said.

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• Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wishes all Christians a Merry Christmas.

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