ASEAN meeting grapples with trade war, territorial disputes

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Thailand Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, center, talks to businessmen after a speech at the ASEAN Business and Investment Summit in Nonthaburi province, Thailand, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

NONTHABURI – Southeast Asia should use the sway of its shared market of 650 million people and speak with "one voice" to ensure it is treated fairly in an age of protectionism, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said Saturday as leaders gathered for a regional summit.

The image of unity the Association of Southeast Asian Nations strives to project has been clouded by wrangling over a long-delayed agreement on a free trade bloc. ASEAN's 10 members are also divided over the handling of territorial disputes with China.

There were signs of progress, with officials saying they hope to present a preliminary agreement on the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership aimed at creating a 16-member trading bloc including ASEAN and six other major economies, led by China.

Mahathir told business leaders attending ASEAN meetings that they should unite in fighting back if countries try to shut them out of their markets.

The trade war between Beijing and Washington and President Donald Trump's "America first" stance have many countries sharing a common goal of protecting their access to wealthy Western markets.

"ASEAN is quite a big market for the whole world. We don't want to go into a trade war," Mahathir said. He described campaigns against exports of palm oil from Malaysia and Indonesia over concerns regarding labor and environmental issues as "sabotage."

"If they do things that are not nice to us, we have to be not nice to them," he said. "If you cut back some imports of palm oil from Malaysia, we can cut back our imports from them."

"We should have one voice," Mahathir said. "If you go it alone, you will be bullied."