ASEAN leaders long for a trade agreement while the economy sinks in the dispute between the United States and China

BANGKOK: Southeast Asian leaders met on Saturday in Thailand observing a breakthrough in the talks about the world's largest trade agreement to help get rid of the lethargy that has taken over the global economy since the beginning of the US-China tariff war.

The 10 members (ASEAN) opened their annual summit in Bangkok in the hope of securing a China-backed free trade pact that unites half of the world's population and about 40 percent of their trade.

The Regional Integral Economic Association (RCEP), an agreement that extends from India to New Zealand and extended over several years, is now considered an urgent counterpoint to US protectionism.

Washington's commercial rumble with Beijing has affected markets, and the IMF warned that the dispute could reduce global growth at the lowest rate in more than a decade.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump's protectionist rhetoric has scared some ASEAN nations that fear their economies will fall under their sights.

Trump has repeatedly warned of further intervention to protect American businesses and several Asian nations are waiting to know if the United States will include them on a watch list of currency handlers.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad warned that the regional bloc could counteract any punitive trade measures, avoiding details.

We will do exactly what Trump does, he said in a business forum before the summit opened, calling the US leader not a very kind man.

If you go alone, you will be intimidated. We don't want to go into a trade war, but sometimes when they do things that aren't pleasant to us, we have to be nasty to them, he added.

Earlier, his Thai counterpart, Prayut Chan-O-Cha, echoed the issue of regional cooperation in the RCEP agreement, while Philippine trade secretary Ramón López said he expected to receive a very positive report (on RCEP) on Monday when the summit ends

India, whose Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also in Thailand , is the greatest obstacle to RCEP in its current form.

New Delhi fears opening key industries such as metals, textiles and dairy products to cheaper Chinese importers.

Indian intransigence has questioned the agreement, which is repeated in the 10 Southeast Asian economies along with Japan, India, China, New Zealand and Australia.

We want them to be (India). We want to have them ... they are a great economy, Lopez told reporters.

Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang will attend the three-day meeting, where tensions in the South China Sea will also lead the agenda.

China supports RCEP, an agreement seen as a way for Beijing to assert its commercial dominance in its Asian backyard after the U.S. withdrawal from the Transpacific Association (TPP) in 2017.

The ASEAN summit follows a push by Washington and Beijing for a partial agreement to crush some of the tariffs in exchange for billions of dollars in goods that have shaken both economies.

But Washington has reduced its delegation to Bangkok this year.

In what some read as a rebuff to ASEAN, the United States is sending national security adviser Robert O'Brien and trade chief Wilbur Ross.

Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence, attended last year's ASEAN summit in Singapore , and President Donald Trump was at the 2017 meeting in the Philippines.

A senior White House official refuted claims of a rebuff to the Southeast Asian bloc.

Both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are not available because they will be very engaged in the campaign for a series of governor elections, the official told reporters.

Instead, Trump trusts O'Brien to go out and deal with big and small problems, the official added.

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