Asia-Pacific ministers meet seeking to finalize trade pact

Australian Trade Minister Steven Ciobo attends the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) ministerial meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam Monday, May 22, 2017. Trade ministers of 16 Asia-Pacific countries gather in Hanoi to speed up finalization of the China-led trade agreement by the end of this year. (AP Photo/Hau Dinh)
Japanese Trade Minister Hiroshige Seko attends the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) ministerial meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam on Monday, May 22, 2017. Trade ministers of 16 Asia-Pacific countries gather in Hanoi to speed up finalization of the China-led trade agreement by the end of this year. (AP Photo/Hau Dinh)
Chinese Trade Minister Zhong Shan adjusts headphone during the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) ministerial meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam Monday, May 22, 2017. Trade ministers of 16 Asia-Pacific countries gather in Hanoi to speed up finalization of the China-led trade agreement by the end of this year. (AP Photo/Hau Dinh)
New Zealand's Trade Minister Todd McClay listens during the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) ministerial meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam on Monday, May 22, 2017. Trade ministers of 16 Asia-Pacific countries gather in Hanoi to speed up finalization of the China-led trade agreement by the end of this year. (AP Photo/Hau Dinh)
Trade ministers of 16 countries from the Asia-Pacific region stand for a group photo during the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) ministerial meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam on Monday, May 22, 2017. The ministers gather in Hanoi to speed up finalization of the China-led trade agreement by the end of this year. (AP Photo/Hau Dinh)

HANOI, Vietnam — Trade ministers from the Asia-Pacific region were meeting in Hanoi on Monday to speed up negotiations seeking to finalize a regional trade pact amid fears of growing trade protectionism.

Negotiations for the 16-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership led by China started four years ago, and members are seeking to finalize the agreement by the end of the year.

"We are at this stage where it has become important to all of us to show political willingness to move our discussions forward, especially in light of the trends in some parts of the world where a return of protectionism is being considered," Philippines Secretary of Trade and Industry Ramon Lopez told fellow trade ministers.

"We are here today to help push the negotiations forward by inserting the political will to break the remaining challenges," he said. "Our presence here today sends a strong message of our commitment and drive toward reaching substantial conclusion of negotiations hopefully by year end."

Monday's meeting took place at a time when 11 remaining members of the Trans Pacific Partnership committed to move ahead without the United States.

President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the TPP days after taking office in January, fulfilling one of campaign promises. Trump preferred bilateral free trade agreements instead of multilateral deals, which he claimed stole American jobs.

With the TPP without U.S. participation, RCEP would be the world's largest free regional trade pact, even though it has fewer requirements compared with TPP in terms of labor rights, intellectual property rights and environmental protection.

RCEP, which includes 10 members of ASEAN and their partners, including Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand, is seen as an alternative to the TPP.

Speaking at the meeting Monday, Vietnamese Minister of Industry and Trade Tran Tuan Anh said RCEP can show the world that free trade is possible even amid growing trade protectionism.

"In the context that protectionism is emerging in a number of major economies in the world, we believe that the conclusion of the RCEP agreement negotiation will convey a clear and consistent message of the opening up and economic integration enhancing policy of the countries in the region," he said.

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