Warnings of a domino effect of protectionism as Asian leaders meet

Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah speaks to Malay Mail at Wisma Putra in Putrajaya

The President skipped the next event, the 20th Asean-Republic of Korea Summit and the event after that, a working lunch hosted by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for the Asean leaders.

The ASEAN leaders meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was scheduled for 9:30 a.m., where Duterte was present and ready to engage with leaders on issues concerning the South China Sea.

The 10 members of ASEAN agreed to start negotiations on a code of conduct in the South China Sea in 2002, but little progress has been made amid rising tensions in the area, which is a crucial trade route for worldwide shipping and thought to be rich in natural resources.

Away from the troubles of the South China Sea, Premier Li also called for China and Asean to boost regional investment and trade, and said the two sides had completed the domestic procedures to upgrade their free-trade agreement.

The Singaporean leader shook hands with the President, saying: "Hi, Mr. President".

Experts say the corridor will help China further open up to the world while opening a shortcut for Southeast Asian countries to enter the Chinese market. Modi said he would also have the opportunity to interact with participants and winners of the India-Singapore Hackathon.

Officials said the trip to the city-state is aimed at upgrading cooperative relations with ASEAN through expanding trade and people-to-people exchanges, strengthening regional crisis management capabilities and speeding up discussions on how to respond jointly to the fourth industrial revolution.

"We have deepened mutual trust and understanding, and managed our differences peacefully", he said.

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During the talks, Li stressed China's support for the economic integration of East Asia and the centrality of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in regional cooperation.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), covering half the world's population and including Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) countries such as the Philippines, has been billed as an antidote to President Donald Trump's "America First" agenda that has seen tariffs imposed on nearly half of all Chinese imports to the United States - and retaliatory levies by Beijing.

"With the headwind of trade protectionism, free trade is facing some difficulties", Li said.

Lee said talks on the RCEP have seen some major breakthroughs this year and have entered the final stage. It is unclear whether a deal on the initiative will be reached in Singapore.

Some ASEAN members and China have overlapping claims to islands in the sea, one of the world's busiest waterways.

President Moon Jae-in left for Singapore Tuesday for annual summits with Southeast Asian nations and their dialogue partners as he strives to bolster relations with the region and drum up global support for his initiative for peace with North Korea.

At the meetings, ASEAN and China will try to make headway in negotiations for a code of conduct for the South China Sea, which Beijing claims nearly in its entirety while ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei claim parts of the area.

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