BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Addressing world leaders at the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Brussels on Friday, His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah called for ASEAN and the European Union to resume negotiations for a free trade agreement (FTA).

Speaking during the ASEM plenary session, Brunei’s monarch said the people must be assured of the benefits of global trade and economic integration, citing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership — a FTA bewteen ASEAN and six other countries, possibly giving rise to the world’s largest trading bloc — as a positive example of international trade cooperation.

Negotiations for an ASEAN-EU FTA began in 2007 but were suspended two years later, with the European Union opting instead to conduct bilateral negotiations with individual ASEAN states. Back in July, Singapore, as the rotating coordinator for ASEAN-EU relations, said both blocs have agreed to restart the negotiations, although no time frame was given.

In his address, His Majesty also cited “geographical risks, demographic change and shifting perceptions” as challenges that threaten the positive momentum of global economic growth.

He stressed that markets must be kept open and protectionism resisted, and that countries should follow the rules-based trading system embodied by the World Trade Organization.

These sentiments were echoed by the 53 ASEM countries in a statement issued at the end of the meeting, calling for support for a global trading system, in rebuttal of rising US protectionism under Donald Trump.

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“Recent international developments have boosted the relevance of ASEM as a building block for effective multilateralism and the rules-based international order with the United Nations at its core,” the chairman’s statement said.

The statement also called for the “elimination of unjustifiable market-distorting measures by governments and related entities”, likely referring to America’s harsh steel tariffs.

The EU will also ink a landmark trade deal with Singapore on the margins of the summit later on Friday, as well seek to shore up support for the beleaguered Iran nuclear deal, which suffered a hammer blow when the US pulled out earlier this year and reimposed sanctions on Iran — despite the desperate pleas of European allies.

ASEM is an inter-regional political dialogue held every two years between 53 member nations, which together account for well over half of global population and gross domestic product.

— Additional reporting by AFP