Asia-Pacific leaders called on Thursday for open and multilateral trade to support a global economy battered by the novel coronavirus, and some hoped for more engagement with the United States under a Joe Biden administration.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, among the leaders at a virtual meeting of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, rejected protectionism and said globalisation was "irreversible", a day before US President Donald Trump was expected to join in the gathering.
"We will not reverse course or run against historical trend by 'decoupling' or forming a small circle to keep others out," Xi said at a forum ahead of the APEC leaders meeting to be held virtually in Kuala Lumpur on Friday.
"China will remain committed to openness and cooperation, and adhere to multilateralism and the principle of extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits," he said.
Xi said "mounting unilateralism, protectionism and bullying as well as backlash against economic globalisation" had added to risks and uncertainties in the world economy.
Trump has introduced protectionist trade policies since coming to power in 2017, including tariffs on billions of dollars worth of Chinese products that launched a trade war between the world's two largest economies.
The APEC leaders' meeting comes as economies are trying to recover from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and days after Trump lost his bid for a second term.
Trump, who has yet to concede and begin a transfer of government to President-elect Biden, was due to represent the United States at the virtual summit on Friday, a US official said. It will be the first time he has joined an APEC summit since 2017, the only time he has participated.
Biden has signalled a return to multilateralism pursued during Barack Obama's presidency, though questions remain over whether the new president would reverse Trump-era policies.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told the APEC forum he expected "more multilateralists" in the Biden administration.
"I think that they will be more supportive of the WTO, and of APEC. I am not sure that they will be more keen on throwing the doors wide open, or joining the CPTPP, because that depends on domestic politics too," he said, referring to the successor to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact.
Lee also said US trade policies under Trump had weighed on APEC's progress in recent years, which he termed "very slow".
"Also, they have not been supportive of trade as a win-win proposition. The attitude of the Trump administration is that this is a win-lose proposition," Lee said.
Trump's "America First" approach saw the United States withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement in 2017. It has since changed its name to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
The United States is also absent from the world's largest free-trade bloc, the Regional Comprehensive Partnership Agreement (RCEP) - a 15-nation pact backed by China that was signed last week.
At the last APEC meeting in 2018, the countries failed to agree on a joint communique, the first time in the bloc's history, as the United States and China stood at opposing ends of talks on trade and investments.
Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyidin Yassin said APEC countries were working on a "post 2020" vision and he stressed that free and multilateral trade was integral to economic recovery.
"This is essential for our businesses as market stability and predictability are the central pillars which ensure that trade and investment continue to flow, even during times of crisis," he said.