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ASEAN, Hong Kong sign deal in 'vote for open trade

The gathering of ASEAN foreign ministers is expected to see a fiery few days of diplomacy, with the top diplomats from China, the United States, Russia and North Korea set to join their ASEAN and other Asia-Pacific counterparts for security talks
Mohd RASFAN (POOL/AFP)
ASEAN members have established a free-trade area aiming to slash tariffs on goods to zero.

Hong Kong and Southeast Asian nations signed a free trade deal Sunday, in what one minister described as a "clear vote" against protectionism, as the United States withdraws into its "America First" rhetoric.

The city, a special administrative region of China, forged the agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on the sidelines of a summit in Manila to be attended by world leaders including US President Donald Trump. 

The ministers were meeting just days after Trump accused Asia-Pacific nations of undercutting his country -- the world's largest economy -- during another regional meeting in Vietnam. 

"In the face of protectionistic sentiments in other parts of the world, (this agreement is) in fact a loud and clear vote from all of us here for free and more open trade," Edward Yau, Hong Kong's Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, said during the signing ceremony. 

Trump has unpicked decades of US-led efforts towards more open global trade and lower tariffs, pulling his nation from the sprawling Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) pact which had included four ASEAN members. 

China has moved to occupy the space vacated by the US, positioning itself as the champion of a world with fewer barriers to commerce, even as critics accuse it of its own brand of protectionism.

ASEAN, an economic bloc with a combined population of more than 600 million, is Hong Kong's second-largest trading partner after mainland China, according to the territory's Trade and Industry Department website.

Hong Kong acts as an important entrepot for trade between mainland China and ASEAN, an economic grouping made up of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Total merchandise trade between Hong Kong and ASEAN amounted to $106 billion in 2016 and total services trade between the two sides was $15 billion in 2015, according to official figures. 

The deal, which was signed along with an investment agreement, will provide the region with better access to the Chinese market, the Philippine trade ministry said.

First negotiated in 2014, it covers areas including customs procedures, sanitary measures and intellectual property rights. 

"We send a strong message to the world of our outward-oriented drive and economic resolve towards cooperation," said Philippine Trade Secetary Ramon Lopez, whose nation this year holds ASEAN's rotating chairmanship. 

ASEAN members have established a free-trade area among themselves aiming to slash tariffs on most goods to zero and minimize non-tariff barriers. 

They have also signed free-trade deals with key partners China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. 

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