KUALA LUMPUR: Asia Pacific leaders put aside differences over trade on Friday to endorse their first joint communique in three years, calling for free and predictable trade to help support a global economy battered by the coronavirus pandemic. Leaders of the 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), who included U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping, also said they would not resort to protectionist trade policies. The joint statement, issued after a virtual summit hosted by Malaysia, comes amid ongoing trade tensions between the world's two largest economies, the United States and China.
"The impact of (the U.S.-China) trade war has been eclipsed by the COVID-19 pandemic," Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin told reporters after the leaders' meeting.
"APEC has also pledged to refrain from backtracking and resorting to protectionist measures to keep markets and borders open," he said.
In the joint communique, the leaders said they recognised "the importance of a free, open, fair, non-discriminatory, transparent and predictable trade and investment environment" to drive growth during the crisis.
APEC countries failed to come to an agreement in 2018, after talks were stymied by disagreements over trade and investment between the United States and China, and last year's gathering in Chile was cancelled due to violent street protests.
Trump said nothing "controversial" in his remarks at the leaders' meeting but largely focused on domestic issues and spoke of the successes of his four years in office, according to a source who listened to his address.
Xi, in his remarks, called for free and open trade and investment, and support for multilateralism.
He also said China will "actively consider" signing up for a regional free-trade pact, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
Trump had pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, the predecessor to CPTPP.
In the run-up to Friday's meeting, several APEC leaders warned against protectionism and also expressed hope that the incoming U.S. administration of Joe Biden will engage more and support multilateral trade.
"As we confront this generation's biggest economic challenge, we must not repeat the mistakes of history by retreating into protectionism," New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Friday at the APEC CEO Dialogues.
"APEC must continue to commit to keeping markets open and trade flowing."
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Thursday that U.S. trade policies under Trump had caused "very slow" progress in APEC in recent years, adding that he expected "more multilateralists" in the Biden administration.
Other than the CPTPP, the United States is also absent from the world's largest free-trade bloc, the Regional Comprehensive Partnership Agreement (RCEP) - a 15-nation pact backed by China that was signed last week.
The Trump administration has been criticised for a lower level of engagement in Asia. The only time he has joined an APEC summit - held annually - was in 2017.
He also missed the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit this month.