KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Leaders from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, including U.S. President Donald Trump, pledged Friday to work toward free, open and nondiscriminatory trade and investment to revive their coronavirus-battered economies.
The leaders cast aside differences to issue their first joint statement since 2017, in which they agreed to further deepen regional integration by working toward a free trade agreement involving the bloc's 21 economies.
This year's host, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, said at a news conference that the U.S.-China trade war that had hampered talks in the past has "been eclipsed" by the covid-19 pandemic.
With growth in the Asia-Pacific region expected to slump 2.7% this year, from a 3.6% growth in 2019, he said the Asia-Pacific bloc's focus was on accelerating economic recovery and developing an affordable vaccine.
"The health risks and its impact on the global economic ecosystem has been the major priority agenda for all [bloc] economies this year," he said.
The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, whose members account for 60% of global production, also has "pledged to refrain from backtracking and resorting to protectionist measures to keep markets and borders open," he said.
The leaders' meeting was the first since 2018 after last year's host, Chile, canceled the annual summit because of violent domestic protests. But at the Papua New Guinea summit in 2018, the leaders failed to issue a joint statement for the first time as a U.S.-China row over trade policies played out.
Trump's participation Friday, his first since 2017, came as a surprise as he challenges the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, won by Joe Biden. Last weekend, Trump skipped the East Asia Summits and withdrew from speaking at an Asia-Pacific meeting of chief executive officers earlier Friday.
Trump, whose "America First" policy has alienated trading partners, addressed the meeting but his speech wasn't immediately available.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, in his remarks, urged countries to "defend multilateralism" and called for the establishment of an "Asia-Pacific free trade zone at an early date."
He told the meeting that China would "actively consider" joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement that includes Japan, Canada, Mexico and other regional economies but not the United States. Trump pulled the United States out of the agreement's predecessor, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which never took effect.
Xi's comments were made just after China and 14 Asian nations signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the world's largest free-trade agreement.
If China were to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, that would make Xi's government a member of the Asia-Pacific region's two biggest trade arrangements, while the United States is part of neither.
The Asia-Pacific leaders adopted the Putrajaya Vision 2040, a new 20-year growth vision to replace the Bogor Goals named after the Indonesian town where leaders agreed in 1994 to free and open trade and investment.
They pledged to build an "open, dynamic, resilient and peaceful region" by 2040, and asked officers to draw up implementation plans by next year.
"We recognize the importance of a free, open, fair, non-discriminatory, transparent and predictable trade and investment environment to drive economic recovery at such a challenging time," according to the joint statement.
"We resolve to further navigate the region towards recovery along the path of strong, balanced, inclusive, sustainable, innovative and secure economic growth," the statement added.
Earlier Friday, the leaders of Japan and New Zealand warned countries against the temptation of retreating into trade protectionism.
Speaking by video link from Tokyo to the meeting earlier Friday of Asia-Pacific CEOs, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said "making rules for a free and fair global economy is critically important."
While continuing to promote World Trade Organization reform, he said Japan will "aspire for the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific."
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who will be next year's bloc meeting host, said she hopes leaders will work to bolster the regional economy.
"As we confront this generation's biggest economic challenge, we must not repeat the mistakes of history by retreating into protectionism. [The Asia-Pacific bloc] must continue to commit to keeping markets open and trade flowing," she said.
The Asia-Pacific forum brings together Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Philippines, Russia Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and the United States.
New Zealand will also host next year's meetings virtually because of the pandemic.
Information for this article was contributed by Joe McDonald of The Associated Press.