DANANG, Vietnam - Leaders of the countries participating in a Pacific Rim trade pact abandoned by President Donald Trump have agreed to meet and are expected to endorse a basic agreement on moving ahead without the U.S.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said Friday that he was "reasonably confident" the 11 countries remaining in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which include Malaysia, would have a basic agreement.
They are trying to find a way forward without the U.S., the biggest economy and before Trump took office one of its most assertive supporters. Trump has said he prefers country-to-country deals and is seeking to renegotiate several major trade agreements to, as he says, "put America First."
Najib's comments to a business conference on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum followed conflicting reports that a basic agreement had been reached in the wee hours Friday.
Najib said officials met until 3 a.m. Friday trying to bridge their differences and produce a statement for the leaders of their countries to endorse.
"I am quite sanguine we will get a deal but of course it has to go through a process of ratification and some side matters have to be worked out, but at least we have managed to salvage some kind of free trade agreement, which is important for the future of APEC," Najib said.
Vietnamese officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The negotiations are being held in Danang, Vietnam, alongside meetings of the 21-member APEC's annual summit, where Trump's markedly different stance from past U.S. leaders was being felt even before his arrival Friday in the coastal resort city.
While most APEC members say they remain committed to their multi-country approach in weaving their economies ever closer together, many acknowledge that open trade is a mixed bag: Not everyone benefits equally.
The U.S. pushback on "free trade," evidenced in Trump's "America First" policy, has raised eyebrows in the region after decades of U.S. pressure on opening markets.
While APEC operates by consensus and customarily issues nonbinding statements, TPP commitments would eventually be ratified and enforced by its members.
But even talks this week on a declaration to cap this week's APEC summit had to be extended for an extra half-day as ministers haggled over wording. It's unclear what the exact sticking points were, but officials have alluded to differences over the unequal impact more open trade has had on workers and concerns over automation in manufacturing that could leave many millions in a wide array of industries with no work to do.
Vietnamese Trade Minister Tran Tuan Anh said a "new trend of protectionism" was afoot, but the group eventually managed to bridge their differences.
As a developing country with a fast-growing export sector, Vietnam has a strong interest in open trade and access for its exports to consumers in the West. The summit is an occasion for its leaders to showcase the progress its economy has made thanks largely to foreign investment and trade. Danang, Vietnam's third largest city, is in the midst of a construction boom as dozens of resorts and smaller hotels pop up along its scenic coastline.
But even though its economy grew at a brisk 6.2 per cent pace last year, Vietnam's GDP per capita is still one of the lowest among APEC members at less than $2,200. Many of its 95 million people remain poor and vulnerable to natural disasters such as storms that lashed the coast near Danang just days before the APEC meetings.
APEC's members are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, the U.S. and Vietnam.