Trump, Xi, meets on the Asia Pacific digital discussion board whereas the commerce holds out

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping pose for a photo prior to their bilateral meeting during the 2019 G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan

By Rozanna Latiff and A. Ananthalakshmi

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping will attend a virtual summit of leaders in the Asia-Pacific region on Friday to discuss the coronavirus and the recovery of the global economy, with persistent trade differentials are likely to tarnish the meeting.

The couple will attend a meeting of leaders of 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), practically hosted by Malaysia just two weeks after Trump lost his re-election bid.

Asia-Pacific leaders called for more open and multilateral trade to support the economic recovery and warned against protectionist trade policies like those that Trump has been in place since 2017.

At the last APEC summit in 2018, for the first time in the bloc's history, countries failed to agree on a joint communique as the United States and China disagreed on trade and investment.

Leading up to the Friday meeting, several APEC leaders warned against protectionism as the world grapples with the economic impact of the novel coronavirus.

"In view of the greatest economic challenge of this generation, we must not repeat the mistakes of history by withdrawing into protectionism," said New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Friday at the APEC CEO dialogues.

"APEC must continue to commit to keeping markets open and trade flowing."

Xi said on Thursday that "increasing unilateralism, protectionism and bullying, as well as backlash against economic globalization" have contributed to risks and uncertainties in the world economy.

He said China will continue to advocate multilateralism, openness and cooperation.

Other leaders in the Asia-Pacific region have also expressed hope that a Joe Biden administration would become more involved and support multilateral trade.

Trump imposed tariffs on Chinese products worth billions of dollars, sparking a trade war between the world's two largest economies, and pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact.

The United States is also absent from the world's largest free trade bloc, the Regional Comprehensive Partnership Agreement (RCEP) – a China-backed pact with 15 nations that was signed last week.

The Trump administration has been criticized for being less involved in Asia. The only time he attended an annual APEC summit was in 2017. Last year's summit in Chile was canceled due to violent protests.

Trump also missed two virtual Asia meetings last week: the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) 10-member Summit and the broader East Asia Summit.

Aside from working on a joint communique, APEC leaders are expected to discuss the bloc's post-2020 vision to replace the 1994 Bogor goals – a set of goals to remove barriers to trade and investment – that expire this year.

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