Asean-Australian Leaders Gather on Sydney Saturday (18/3).

JAKARTA (TheInsiderStories) – Australian and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders on Sunday closed a regional summit with strong criticism of protectionism, amid fears of a trade war over a plan to fix US import tariffs.

“We believe that a free, open, and rule-based multilateral trading system is key to economic and regional welfare growth,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at a press conference, ending a meeting of Australian leaders with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Earlier on March 7, US President Donald Trump will impose tariffs to protect steel and aluminum producers on the grounds of national security.

Washington will also impose US$60 billion in import tariffs on goods from China, especially from the technology and communications sector.

Lee and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull urged ASEAN to immediately agree on a Comprehensive Regional Economic Partnership (RCEP), China’s proposed alternative to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which stopped halfway after the United States resigned last year.

“If we reach an agreement, it will be an antithesis to the trend of protectionism, and ensure that the Indo-Pacific region will become an open and free trade centre,” Turnbull said.

Officially, the summit between ASEAN and Australia is to bring economic ties closer between the two sides, as well as to discuss the threat of radicalism brought by those just returned from the war in the Middle East.

Australia hosted the meeting despite not being a member of the 10-member regional bloc, with a target of increasing political and trade cooperation in Southeast Asia amid growing influence over China.

In a joint statement issued at the end of the summit, ASEAN and Australia also urged all parties to “refrain” from the South China Sea, as Beijing is increasingly aggressive to expand, which could potentially trigger a conflict with some ASEAN member countries.

“We emphasize the importance of de-militarization and the need to increase mutual trust, we urge all parties to exercise restraint and avoid actions that could worsen the situation,” the joint statement said.

Several ASEAN member countries such as Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines are now in dispute with China over the ownership of the world trade route in the South China Sea. In the area, Beijing has reclaimed a number of artificial islands and built the airstrip and the port on it.

“This is a matter of security and stability in Southeast Asia that will impact all ASEAN countries if something is wrong,” Lee said.

Meanwhile, President Joko Widodo has called the ASEAN leaders to accelerate the establishment of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) for 10 ASEAN member countries and 6 partner countries.

RCEP is a free trade agreement initiated by 10 ASEAN member countries, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Brunei, and Singapore with six strategic partners namely Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand and was first proposed at the ASEAN Summit in Cambodia in 2012.

Widodo also wants Australia to play a bigger regional role in ASEAN in areas of defence, trade and security matters. (*)