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|European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini assured her Southeast Asian counterparts that they could count on Europe as a free trade partner. (Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)|
The United States is embroiled in trade spats with China and close allies including the European Union, imposing tit-for-tat tariffs on billions of dollars worth of goods and heightening fears of economic pain that could spread worldwide.
At a meeting in Singapore, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini assured her Southeast Asian counterparts that they could count on Europe as a free trade partner.
"We stand on the side of a free and fair trade that benefits all, instead of damaging trade wars," she told reporters at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) forum.
Mogherini voiced hope that bilateral trade accords the EU is negotiating with several ASEAN states "will be the stepping stone towards a future region-to-region deal".
Washington escalated the trade row this week by saying it was considering more than doubling threatened tariffs on a range of Chinese imports worth US$200 billion.
The US has already imposed 25 per cent tariffs on US$34 billion in Chinese goods, with another US$16 billion to be targeted in coming weeks.
"There's been unanimity of concern over looming trade wars because as we know in a war there's no winners," Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano told reporters on Friday.
"And worse, sometimes you're not in the war but you're gravely affected. And when we talk about trade war, we're talking about actual jobs of real people."
ASEAN, a 10-nation region of 650 million people with some of the world's fastest growing emerging economies, has been keenly forging free-trade pacts among its members and regional trading partners.
The EU and ASEAN launched talks towards a trade pact in 2007, but the EU opted out of the process two years later - partly due to problems with then-military ruled Myanmar.
Both both sides agreed to reboot trade ties last year with the possibility of an accord between the two regions.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah also warned that Southeast Asia would suffer from a devastating trade war.
"All of ASEAN member states are trading states ... Our concern is if the trade war were to continue, we will be affected in one way or the other," he said.
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said he hopes to complete by the end of the year a massive China-backed regional trade pact that has taken centre stage as US President Donald Trump embarks on a unilateral, protectionist agenda.
The 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) notably excludes the US, which had been leading another regional trade pact - the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) - until Trump abruptly abandoned it last year.