BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah called for APEC economies to uphold multilateralism and the “spirit of openness and partnership” amid sharp differences between the United States and China over the rules of global trade.

For the first time, APEC leaders were unable to agree on a formal written declaration after the Papua New Guinea summit, which was dominated by a war of words between the world’s top two economies as they vie for regional influence.

During the leaders’ retreat on Sunday, Brunei’s monarch pledged his government’s support for the World Trade Organization (WTO), as a platform that ensures free and transparent trade, saying that the organisation needs to be strengthened to meet future challenges.

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neil, who chaired the meeting, indicated the WTO had been a sticking point between members in agreeing a joint communique.

Brunei’s sultan called on the APEC countries to work together to increase trade and investment by upholding a multilateral trading system, calling on the grouping to provide leadership to demonstrate that economic integration benefits people and businesses.

L-R: Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Brunei’s Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, US Vice President Mike Pence, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and others pose for a family photo during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Port Moresby on November 18, 2018. Photo: Infofoto

He also cited the need to address new and complex issues brought about by the rapid development of technology — such as disruption to traditional employment and global value chains — as the region moves towards the establishment of a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific.

Small businesses are struggling to compete and there are fewer employment opportunities in traditional fields of work, he said, urging APEC to continue reforms that would help those left behind by globalisation and shifts in technology.

On APEC’s future direction, His Majesty underlined the importance of ensuring the Post-2020 Vision would be bold yet pragmatic like the Bogor Goals in 1994; and to prepare the youth with the right skills for new jobs by improving education and training policies.

APEC leaders divided after US, China spat

As the US-China trade war spilled over into summit deliberations, Papua New Guinea Prime Minister O’Neil acknowledged that their competing visions for the region was what failed to produce a joint declaration.

“You know the two big giants in the room. What can I say?” he told media at the conclusion of the meeting.

He added that a chairman’s statement would be issued in lieu of a joint communique.

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau admitted the failure came down to “different visions on particular elements with regard to trade that prevented full consensus.”

HM the Sultan of Brunei speaks to Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the retreat session of the APEC leaders meeting in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Photo: Infofoto

Sources said going into the meeting the United States had pressed for the leaders to issue what amounted to a denunciation of the World Trade Organization and a call for its wholesale reform.

That demand was a step too far for Beijing, which would likely get less preferential treatment under any changes.

“APEC has got no charter over the World Trade Organization. That is a fact,” O’Neill said. “Those matters can be raised at the World Trade Organization.”

‘Drown our partners’

Even before the summit started, tensions between the two big hitters came to the fore with Xi and US Vice President Mike Pence crossing swords in competing major policy speeches.

Pence warned smaller countries not to be seduced by China’s massive Belt-and-Road infrastructure programme, which sees Beijing offer money to poorer countries for construction and development projects.

The “opaque” loans come with strings attached and build up “staggering debt”, Pence charged.

In a speech to business leaders just minutes before Pence, Xi insisted the initiative was not a “trap” and there was no “hidden agenda”.

Xi also lashed out at “America First” trade protectionism, and stressed that global trade rules should not be applied “with double standards or selfish agendas” — in a thinly veiled swipe at Washington.

With fears that the tit-for-tat trade war between the two rivals could cripple the Pacific Rim economy, some attendees voiced concern about the growing rivalry for influence in the region.

“Business leaders do not want to speak out, but behind the scenes here, they are talking over dinner saying ‘how has this happened’?” Denis O’Brien, the billionaire chairman of Digicel told AFP.

“It’s a very forced situation, one country is trying to force all the other countries to change tariffs agreed over years,” O’Brien said.