WASHINGTON : Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob on Thursday urged the United States to adopt a more active trade and investment agenda with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), saying this would benefit Washington economically and strategically.
Speaking in Washington, where ASEAN leaders are gathered for a two-day summit with President Joe Biden, Yaakob made clear some of the frustration felt in Asia since former President Donald Trump quit a regional trade pact in 2017.
He said the United States was an important partner for ASEAN, as its largest foreign direct investor and second largest trading partner, with two-way trade of US$308.9 billion in 2020.
Yaakob told a forum of U.S. businesses and other ASEAN leaders the COVID-19 pandemic had made clear the importance of international trade and cooperation and the interlinkage of regional supply chains.
“Therefore the U.S. should adopt a more active trade and investment agenda with ASEAN, which will benefit the U.S. economically and strategically,” he said.
Yaakob pointed to the entry into force of the Regional Economic Comprehensive Partnership (RCEP), a Chinese-backed initiative, which ASEAN saw as an important tool to invigorate regional business and economic activity through a marked reduction in trade barriers.
He said there were some 6,200 U.S. companies operating in ASEAN, many of which used the region as a production platform to export in the region and beyond.
“To further their growth I would encourage U.S. businesses to tap into the largest FTA, with a market covering 15 countries, comprising 2.3 billion, or nearly a third of the global population and world GDP, and take advantage of the vast investment opportunities presented,” he said.
At a virtual summit with ASEAN last October, Biden said Washington would start talks about developing an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) to engage more with the region as the United States seeks to push back against China’s growing influence.
This would aim to set regional standards for cooperation, but does not currently offer the expanded market access Asian nations crave given his concern for American jobs.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Daniel Wallis)