By James Pomfret and Enrico Dela Cruz
MANILA (Reuters) – Hong Kong on Sunday signed free trade and investment pacts with the ten-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations, in what one of the Chinese territory’s senior officials called a “loud and clear” vote against rising regional trade protectionism.
The pacts conclude nearly three years of talks, are expected to take effect on January 1 at the earliest, and aim to bring “deeper and bolder” integration of market access with the bloc, said Edward Yau, Hong Kong’s commerce and development secretary.
“In the face of protectionist sentiments in other parts of the world, these two agreements are in fact a loud and clear vote from all of us here for freer and more open trade,” Yau said.
“Hong Kong, being a free trade promoter and advocate of a strong, rule-based multilateral trading system, will continue to take this pathway, continue to do our utmost.”
Total merchandise trade between Hong Kong and ASEAN was HK$833 billion ($107 billion) last year, official figures show. Total services trade was HK$121 billion ($16 billion) in 2015.
The ASEAN Hong Kong China Free Trade Agreement (AHKCFTA) was signed on the sidelines of a summit of the regional grouping in the Philippine capital of Manila.
It came after leaders attending an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vietnam agreed to tackle “unfair trade practices” and “market distorting subsidies” in a statement on Saturday that bore the imprint of U.S. President Donald Trump’s efforts to reshape the global trade landscape.
That summit offered a contrast between the vision of U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy and a traditional consensus favoring multinational deals that China now seeks to champion.
While Hong Kong already has one of the world’s freest and most open economies, the pacts will see many ASEAN countries gradually eliminate or slash customs duties on goods from the former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Professional services are also expected to benefit, with increased investment flows, Yau added.
The ASEAN grouping includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
($1=7.8009 Hong Kong dollars)
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