DANANG, Vietnam − Leaders of 21 Pacific Rim economies have watered down their commitment to combat protectionism, in apparent consideration of U.S. President Donald Trump's "America First" trade policy, a draft declaration obtained Thursday by Kyodo News showed.
The members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, including the United States, plan to say in a declaration to be issued after their summit on Friday and Saturday that they will "address" protectionist measures, the draft showed.
The expression is weaker than the previous APEC leaders' statement released in Peru last year, which said the group will "resist all forms of protectionism."
Trump, who took office in January, will be attending his first APEC summit at the meeting in the central Vietnamese city of Danang. Trump has called for "fair, free and reciprocal trading" relationships, while also pursuing a "free and open Indo-Pacific region" during his earlier trip to Japan.
The focus of the APEC meeting has been on whether unity on free trade and the stance against protectionism will be maintained, while advancing regional trade with the United States, the world's biggest economy.
Ministers of the 21 economies held an extended two-day meeting through Thursday amid mounting concern that Trump's pursuit of a "America First" trade policy and eagerness to resolve U.S. trade deficits with Asian countries will prompt it to take protectionist measures, such as imposing higher tariffs, to give domestic companies a pricing edge in the U.S. market, observers said.
The ministers faced difficulties in negotiating with the Trump administration at the meeting held ahead of the summit.
The ministers reached an agreement in principle on the importance of free trade and multilateral frameworks but struggled to produce a statement at the end of the talks, Japan's trade, economy, industry minister Hiroshige Seko said.
In a rare development, the APEC ministers decided the previous day to extend discussions after failing to reach a consensus on a ministerial statement due to conflicting views among the members, including the United States, a negotiation source said.
The United States demanded including the promotion of bilateral economic cooperation in the statement. The request faced opposition from other members who said APEC has supported a multilateral trade framework to ensure free trade, the source said.
"Even if a country emphasizes bilateral (relations), it does not deny the role of multilateral frameworks," Seko said, in an apparent reference to the United States.
"The meeting was held amid various new political situations. There is nothing wrong if it takes time to make arrangements" in producing a ministerial statement, Seko also said.
The struggle at the APEC ministerial meeting resembled the APEC trade ministers' meeting in Hanoi in May, which ended without a joint statement for the first time since 2012.
A statement was issued by the chair instead of by entire group after representatives of the 21 economies failed to reach a consensus on the wording.
The draft of the APEC leaders' declaration reads, "We underline the crucial role of APEC's work to support an open, transparent, non-discriminatory, rules-based and inclusive multilateral trading system."
"We will strive to reinforce free and open trade" and "agree to accelerate efforts to address existing barriers" toward the goal to liberalize trade and investment by 2020, the draft said.
APEC groups Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam.