KUALA LUMPUR - A virtual summit of Asia Pacific leaders started Friday with U.S. President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in attendance to discuss the coronavirus crisis and global economic recovery amid lingering trade differences.
The pair joined a meeting of the leaders of the 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) hosted virtually by Malaysia just two weeks after Trump lost his reelection bid.
Asia Pacific leaders have called for more open and multilateral trade to support the economic recovery and warned against protectionist trade policies, with Xi saying unilateralism has added to global economic risks.
At the last APEC summit in 2018, member countries failed to agree on a joint communique for the first time in the bloc's history as the United States and China disagreed on trade and investments.
Trump has slapped tariffs on billions of dollars worth of Chinese products, which launched a trade war between the world's two largest economies.
In opening remarks at the leaders' meeting, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said the bloc's top priority should be to reaffirm its support and commitment for a rules-based multilateral trading system.
"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," Muhyiddin said.
Other leaders who joined the virtual meeting include New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Japanese premier Yoshihide Suga, Russian President Vladamir Putin and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
In the run-up to Friday's meeting, several APEC leaders warned against protectionism as the world grapples with the economic impact of the novel coronavirus.
"As we confront this generation's biggest economic challenge, we must not repeat the mistakes of history by retreating into protectionism," Ardern said Friday, speaking at the APEC CEO Dialogues.
"APEC must continue to commit to keeping markets open and trade flowing."
Other Asia Pacific leaders have also expressed hope that the incoming U.S. administration of Joe Biden will engage more and support multilateral trade.
Trump pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. 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.
The Trump administration has been criticized for a lower level of engagement in Asia. The only time he has joined an APEC summit - held annually - 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 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit and the broader East Asia Summit.
Other than working on a joint communique, the APEC leaders are expected to discuss the bloc's post-2020 vision, which would replace the 1994 Bogor Goals - a set of targets on reducing barriers to trade and investment - that expire this year.