Trade tensions between the United States and China will trigger a “domino effect” of protectionist measures, Malaysia has warned as Asian leaders gathered for a summit overshadowed by the tit-for-tat tariff war.
The comments by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in Singapore on Tuesday came as China’s premier — for a second day — struck a conciliatory note on the trade spat, saying he was hopeful the two sides will find a way to prevent it escalating.
“I still hope we can hold talks based on mutual respect, balance and mutual benefits to resolve the issue. There are no winners in a trade war,” Premier Li Keqiang said at a function ahead of a meeting with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
US Vice President Mike Pence will attend the Singapore meetings instead of US President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly panned existing multilateral trade pacts as unfair and railed against China over intellectual property theft, entry barriers to American businesses and a yawning US trade gap.
It was not clear if Mr Li and Mr Pence would meet on the sidelines of the Singapore meetings as a prelude to a summit scheduled between Mr Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the end of the month in Buenos Aires.
Before he arrived in Singapore on Monday, Mr Li said China would further open its economy in the face of rising protectionism, though he did not refer directly to China’s bruising trade war with the United States.
Mr Mahathir, a veteran strongman of the region who in May returned to the prime minister’s office he had occupied for 22 years, said other developed countries will take their cue from Washington and Beijing if protectionism is allowed to spiral.
“The trade tension between the two world powers is bound to create a domino effect that will affect trade reactions and will be a reason for other developed countries to adopt protective measures against developing countries, including the ASEAN countries,” Mr Mahathir said.
He said “the rise of trade protectionism, resurgent nationalistic movements and inward-looking policies” seemed to be emerging even among the 10 nations of ASEAN.
That was echoed by summit host Singaporean Prime Lee Hsien Loong, who told ASEAN counterparts “the international order is at a turning point”.
“The existing free, open and rules-based multilateral system which has underpinned ASEAN’s growth and stability has come under stress,” he said, adding that it was unclear if the international order would break up into rival blocs.
China’s Li is expected to rally support at the Singapore meetings for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership a free-trade pact that will encompass more than a third of the world’s GDP.
The RCEP agreement includes 16 countries, including ASEAN nations, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea but not the United States.
Originally published as Malaysian PM predicts China ‘domino effect’