Facing a backlash over free trade, leaders of Pacific Rim nations meeting here on Sunday are pushing back against creeping protectionism in the U.S. and elsewhere, promising to continue strengthening economic ties.
In doing so, leaders from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which accounts for almost 60% of global gross domestic product, sent a message to president-elect Donald Trump that they would move forward with trade pacts with or without the U.S.
“We have to give an unequivocal message to the world that trade continues being beneficial,” said Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a 78-year-old former World Bank economist who called for “protectionism to be defeated.”
Mr. Trump’s election has loomed over the summit of 21 nations, which includes the U.S., China, Japan and Mexico. The meeting rounds off President Barack Obama’s last overseas trip before he leaves office in January.
The APEC leaders will meet Sunday behind closed doors, where topics expected to be discussed include antiglobalization and its impact on policies. In addition to APEC meetings, Mr. Obama is scheduled to confer Sunday with the leaders of Australia and Canada on the sidelines of the summit. Before leaving Lima he will hold a news conference at which he is expected to be asked about Mr. Trump, trade and other topics.
Mr. Trump, who has blamed bad trade deals for sending American jobs overseas, has promised to pull out of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, one of President Obama’s top foreign-policy initiatives that has yet to be ratified. He has pledged to scrap the North American Free Trade Agreement if Canada and Mexico don’t agree to renegotiate terms. He has vowed to put a 45% tariff on Chinese imports if the Asian country doesn’t change practices he says are unfair, risking a trade war between the world’s two biggest economies.
Those policies would represent a sharp turn for the U.S., which has long promoted removing trade barriers to boost economic growth. Now, many APEC leaders in Peru said they hoped to persuade the next U.S. president of trade’s benefits, while China indicated at the summit it was ready to take the lead in promoting trade.
“I very much see this as a strategic shift that is in progress,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society who was in Lima for the meeting. “There is real concern that the U.S. is withdrawing from its traditional role.”
President Obama has looked to reassure allies here, saying that he didn’t expect significant changes to U.S. policy even though Mr. Trump may modify some accords. While U.S. allies wait to see if Mr. Trump changes course once in office, they are considering alternatives.
Prime Minister John Key of New Zealand, a TPP member, said the pact may be able to go forward with “cosmetic changes” to please Mr. Trump. Another option, he said, was for the 11 other countries to implement TPP without the U.S.
“If the United States doesn’t want to participate in free trade, [president-elect] Trump needs to know that other countries will,” he said. “We hope he is part of the program. But if not, we are going to continue doing things.”
Peru and Chile, two other TPP members, said they were interested in joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a Chinese-led pact of 16 countries known as RCEP. Peru is also expected to start trade negotiations with Indonesia and hopes to increase ties with Russia, government officials said.
China, which is excluded from TPP, will further embrace a globalized economy by promoting RCEP and a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, President Xi Jinping said in a speech.
“The U.S. being seen as pulling back does create a void that China is willing to fill,” said U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman. “You are beginning to see that.”
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto said his country’s economic future would remain closely tied to the U.S., which has helped spur manufacturing. Last year, 89% of Mexican exports were from manufacturing, compared with 38% in 1985, he said. On Saturday, Mr. Peña Nieto met Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, saying in a statement they remained committed to North American trade.
“Let’s not be confused,” he said. “We don’t want isolation.”