U.S. underscores commitment to Indo-Pacific region after RCEP deal

WASHINGTON-- The United States Monday underscored its commitment to free trade with the Indo-Pacific region after a bloc of nations led by China struck a major trade deal without U.S. participation.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the world's largest free trade agreement, was announced earlier Monday by the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and its dialogue partners -- South Korea, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

The China-led RCEP is seen as a complicating factor for the Trump administration's Indo-Pacific strategy, which aims to counter Beijing's military and economic rise in the region.

"The United States is committed to promoting free, fair and reciprocal trade with the Indo-Pacific by opening markets, removing unfair trade practices, and obtaining fairer treatment for American businesses and workers," a U.S. State Department spokesperson told Yonhap News Agency in response to the announcement of the deal.

"The United States is not party to the ongoing RCEP negotiations and it would be pre-mature to comment on text that we have not seen," the spokesperson added.

The State Department the same day released a 30-page progress report on the implementation of the Indo-Pacific strategy.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an opening message that President Donald Trump has made U.S. engagement in the Indo-Pacific region a "top priority" of his administration.

He added: "As President Trump said in November 2017: 'We have been friends, partners, and allies in

the Indo-Pacific for a long, long time, and we will be friends, partners, and allies for a long time to come.'"

The report, titled "A Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Advancing a Shared Vision," noted the strides made in the South Korea-U.S. relationship, as well as the region's efforts to enforce sanctions against North Korea.

Its release coincided with an ongoing trip to the region by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell, who is due to visit Seoul Tuesday.

"The United States is strengthening and deepening partnerships with countries that share our values," the report said. "Our alliances with Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea (South Korea), the Philippines, and Thailand have helped sustain peace and security for generations."

It said the U.S. Indo-Pacific vision aligns closely with South Korea's New Southern Policy, which aims to improve strategic relations mainly with Southeast Asian nations and provide local companies with more opportunities to launch businesses in the region.

The report also outlined South Korea-U.S. cooperation on expanding development aid and governance and law enforcement programming in the region, as well as on ensuring an open and secure internet free from foreign influence.

Citing cyber threats as among the most urgent transnational threats, the document said the U.S. is increasing support to its Indo-Pacific partners to defend their networks and counter "malicious cyber activities by" North Korea, China, Russia and other actors.

"The United States coordinates with like-minded partners such as Australia, India, Japan, and the Republic of Korea to build cyber capacity in the region," it said.

A section of the report detailed the U.S.'s efforts to enforce sanctions designed to compel North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program.

"The United States also works with partners on preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and other dangerous

materials," it said. "Together, we counter DPRK proliferation activities, enforce United States and U.N. Security Council sanctions, build strategic trade control frameworks, educate industry on their compliance obligations, and

strengthen the enforcement at key land, maritime, and air ports of entry."

DPRK stands for North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

"We build capacity and raise awareness on proliferation activities with governments, shipping companies, shipboard personnel, and facility personnel to ensure the safe and secure flow of legitimate international trade," the report said.

Meanwhile, South Korea-U.S. cooperation in the economic sector has produced a bilateral framework to strengthen capital markets, as well as a revised bilateral free trade agreement aiming to "protect jobs in America's auto industry, increase U.S. exports, and eliminate burdensome regulations," the report said.

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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