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China pledges further opening as leaders scramble for free trade

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by November 20, 2016 General

China's President Xi Jinping applauds while attending a meeting of the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) Ceo Summit in LimaChinese President Xi Jinping pledged on Saturday to further open the world’s second-largest economy as leaders of Asia-Pacific countries gathered in Peru to find new free-trade options after Donald Trump was elected U.S. president on a protectionist platform.The annual APEC summit got under way in Lima just over a week after Trump’s surprise victory dashed hopes of the largest-ever U.S.-proposed trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), coming to fruition.U.S. President Barack Obama has championed the TPP as a way to counter China’s rise, but his administration has now stopped trying to win congressional approval for the deal signed by 12 economies in the Americas and Asia-Pacific, excluding China. Without U.S. approval the current agreement cannot be implemented.Throughout his campaign, Trump strongly criticized U.S. free-trade deals as bad for jobs, vowing to pull the world’s biggest economy out of the TPP and promising to impose tariffs on imports from trade partners China and Mexico.China’s Xi is selling an alternate vision for regional trade by promoting the Beijing-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which as it stands excludes the Americas.“China will not shut its door to the outside world but open more,” Xi said in a keynote address. “We’re going to…make sure the fruits of development are shared.”Chinese attendance at the APEC meeting was its largest ever and regional delegates said China would take the lead on trade if the U.S. turned toward protectionism.The Obama administration has warned that the RCEP would not include strong protections for workers, the environment or intellectual property.In Lima on his last scheduled trip abroad as president, Obama said the United States worked to include labor provisions in a U.S.-Peru free trade agreement to lift wages and standards for Peruvian workers.“That’s the kind of attitude that we want to try to promote in … the years going forward, and my hope is that policy will continue.”TPP leaders held a meeting at APEC, where Obama urged them to work together to advance TPP, the White House said.The leaders had confirmed the economic and strategic importance of the agreement, Japanese Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kotaro Nogami told reporters after the meeting.CHINA FILLS THE VOID?With the fate of the TPP uncertain, China’s talks on RCEP, which include Australia, India and more than a dozen other countries, are seen as perhaps the only viable path to the broader Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) that APEC aspires to.“It’s a more traditional trade deal, reducing tariffs on goods and services. It’s not as far reaching as the TPP,” Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told reporters of RCEP. But “the more access we can get to more markets for our exports, the better.”New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said the United States was an important partner in the region, but China would fill the void if a Trump administration backs away from free trade.Key said TPP members might be able to incorporate “cosmetic changes” to make the deal more palatable to the real estate magnate and former reality TV star.“The Trump Pacific Partnership for instance, that’d be fine,” Key said, laughing.Despite China’s overtures, some APEC members were determined to press on with TPP and held out hopes the United States would still show leadership on trade.“Our geopolitical position is with the United States, obviously,” Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto said. “That’s where our eyes are set and that’s what we are working for.”Pena Nieto said the North American Free Trade Agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada that Trump has vowed to scrap if cannot renegotiate should be “modernized.”Mexico, Japan, Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore aim to continue with TPP with or without the United States, Mexico’s economy minister, Ildefonso Guajardo, said on Friday.Several APEC members said it was too soon to write off support from Trump on the TPP.“Barack Obama was not a supporter of the TPP when he became elected and he’s leaving office as one of its greatest advocates,” Australia’s Turnbull said.(Reporting by Rosalba O’Brien, Mitra Taj, Caroline Stauffer, Kiyoshi Takenaka and Jeff Mason; Editing by Leslie Adler, Alistair Bell and David Gregorio)By Rosalba O’Brien and Kiyoshi Takenaka

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