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APEC host Thailand targets progress on trade amid geopolitical tensions

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Leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum wrap up talks on Saturday, as host Thailand seeks to focus the 21-member grouping on how to respond to economic challenges such as opening up trade and slamming the brakes on inflation.

The summit is the third in the region attended by global leaders in the past week, and the talks have often been overshadowed by geopolitical tensions ranging from the war in Ukraine to flashpoints such as the Taiwan strait and the Korean peninsula.

A Southeast Asian summit that included China, Japan and the United States was held in Cambodia, while the Group of 20 (G20) major economies met on the Indonesian island of Bali.

The APEC meeting was interrupted on Friday when Vice President Kamala Harris, who is heading the U.S. delegation, called an emergency gathering of allies on the sidelines to condemn North Korea after it test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States.

At the start of a leaders’ retreat on Saturday, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha sought to bring back the focus on economic issues and said the group had made “significant progress” by agreeing a multi-year work plan for a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP).

He did not elaborate, but advancing FTAAP, which aims to build on existing trade frameworks in the region and has been pushed by China, has been a priority for Thailand at the talks.

“An important contribution from APEC to support the multilateral trading system is the advancement of the FTAAP agenda,” said Prayuth.

In a joint statement on Friday, APEC ministers pledged to keep supply chains and markets open, noting some members had condemned the war in Ukraine.

“There were other views and different assessments of the situation and sanctions,” the statement read, adding that APEC was not the forum to resolve security issues.

The statement’s reference to the Ukraine war echoed one issued at the G20 a few days earlier in Bali, Indonesia.

Russia is a member of both G20 and APEC but President Vladimir Putin has stayed away from the summits. First Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov is representing him at APEC.

North Korea carried out the missile test just an hour before the APEC forum opening and Harris met to discuss it with leaders from Australia, Japan, South Korea, Canada and New Zealand.

“This conduct by North Korea most recently is a brazen violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions,” Harris said.

Friday’s launch came after U.S. President Joe Biden met his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Monday in Bali and said Beijing has an obligation to try to talk North Korea out of resuming nuclear testing, while adding that it was unclear whether China would be able to sway Pyongyang.

Harris briefly met Xi on Saturday, a White House official said, adding that she had emphasised the importance to “maintain open lines of communication to responsibly manage the competition between our countries.”

Ties between the superpowers have been strained in recent years over issues like tariffs, Taiwan, intellectual property, the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy and disputes over the South China Sea.

Set up to promote economic integration, APEC’s 21 members account for 38% of the global population, and 62% of gross domestic product and 48% of trade.

Prayuth on Friday urged summit participants to seek sustainable growth and development after economic and social challenges from COVID, climate change and geopolitical rivalries.

Campaigners are keen to see leaders address issues such as food insecurity, surging inflation, climate change and human rights.

A reminder of grassroots demands came as Thai pro-democracy protesters clashed with police on Friday who responded by firing rubber bullets about 10 km (6 miles) from the central Bangkok summit venue.

Related Galleries:

A general view at the APEC Leaders’ Informal Dialogue with Guests during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit 2022, in Bangkok, Thailand November 18, 2022. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha/Pool

Chinese President Xi Jinping, along with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, arrives at Queen Sirikit National Convention Center in Bangkok, Thailand, on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022 for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. Haiyun Jiang/Pool via REUTERS

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha attends the 29th APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting (AELM) during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bangkok, Thailand on November 19, 2022. Jack Taylor/Pool via REUTERS

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