BRUSSELS—European and Asian leaders pledged their support for free trade at a meeting Friday that underscored global trade tensions with U.S. President Donald Trump.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the Asia-Europe Meeting in Brussels would send a signal that “countries are coming together here from Europe and Asia that all want rules-based global trade and are committed to multilateralism.”
The meeting brought together 30 European leaders with their counterparts from 21 Asian nations as well as top officials from the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Together, the group accounts for some two-thirds of the world’s economic output, 55 per cent of global trade and 60 per cent of the world’s population.
A written statement said the leaders “highlighted the vital need of maintaining an open world economy and upholding the rules-based multilateral trading system, with the World Trade Organization at its core.”
Trump slapped 25 per cent tariffs on steel imports and 10 per cent on imported aluminum from the EU on June 1. He said the move was to protect U.S. national security interests, but the Europeans claim it is simply protectionism and breaks global trade rules.
The EU hit back with tariffs on about 2.8 billion euros worth (US$3.4 billion) of U.S. steel, agricultural and other products.
The stakes are even higher in Trump’s trade war with China. Trump has imposed tariffs on about $250 billion worth of Chinese products amid U.S. accusations that China engages in cyber-theft and coerces foreign companies into handing over technology in return for access to the Chinese market, as well as by Trump’s anger over China’s trade surplus with the U.S.
The wide-ranging agenda in Brussels also included discussions on climate change. In their closing statement, the leaders expressed “profound concern that current global efforts are insufficient” to meet goals set out in the 2015 Paris climate accord. Trump has removed the U.S. from that deal.
On the sidelines of the meeting, the EU signed a pact with Vietnam that aims to tackle illegal logging. Later the EU was signing a free trade deal with Singapore.
In another conclusion that ran counter to U.S. policy, European and Asian leaders praised the Iran nuclear deal—another multilateral initiative rejected by Trump.
“Preserving the nuclear deal with Iran is a matter of respecting international agreements, and promoting international security, peace and stability,” they said.
One region where the leaders in Brussels were more closely aligned with Trump was the Korean peninsula, where the U.S. president has been involved with efforts to end North Korea’s nuclear program. The statement in Brussels hailed efforts by South Korea and “other partners” to “achieve lasting peace and stability on a Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons.”
Rights groups and lawmakers had called on the European leaders to push their Asian counterparts on human rights, citing abuses in many Asian nations, including the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Buddhist-majority Myanmar’s military is accused of widespread rights violations against the Muslim Rohingya—including rape, murder, torture and burning villages—which has forced about 700,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh since August 2017.
Without mentioning the Rohingya by name, the leaders underscored the need to pave the way for the “safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return of displaced persons to Rakhine State” in Myanmar.
A U.N. fact-finding mission reported last month that at least 10,000 Rohingya are believed to have died in the violence. The U.N. has called for Myanmar’s top military generals to be prosecuted for genocide and crimes against humanity for their treatment of the Rohingya.