HANOI (UPDATED) -- Pacific Rim trade ministers began a two-day meeting on Saturday in Hanoi to discuss how to promote free trade and regional economic integration amid growing fears that protectionism could hamper growth.
At the gathering of ministers from the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, Robert Lighthizer made his international debut as U.S. trade representative after he became chief trade negotiator.
All eyes are on whether Lighthizer, who has a reputation as a tough negotiator, will get along with his APEC counterparts at the meeting, as U.S. President Donald Trump has been pursuing an "America First" policy and criticizing globalization.
The 69-year-old veteran trade lawyer served as deputy USTR under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. He is expected to hold several bilateral meetings with APEC trade ministers in Hanoi.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said in his opening speech, "APEC should step up economic and technical cooperation, experience and information sharing during the process of policy-making and implementation of cooperation programs."
APEC's goals, however, "might still fail to turn into reality when we lack trust, political determination and coordination to safeguard a peaceful environment, ensure security and safety for investment, and the flows of goods in the region," he said.
Alan Bollard, executive director of the APEC Secretariat, said in a statement, "Populist pressure to move towards protectionism threatens to raise prices for businesses and consumers, reduce product and service choice, and slow down trade-driven growth in the region."
"By the same token, it is also prompting greater coordinated action to address concerns over market competition, worker dislocation and mounting inequality as the accumulation of wealth increases within economies," Bollard added.
At the APEC meeting, ministers are set to talk about the viability of launching an APEC-wide trade initiative called the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, or FTAAP.
They may also exchange views on utilization of human resources for sustainable economic growth and innovation of small and medium-sized enterprises.
On the sidelines of the APEC meeting, trade ministers from the 16-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership are scheduled to hold talks on Monday, and ministers from 11 Trans-Pacific Partnership countries are slated to gather on Sunday.
The United States withdrew from the TPP in January. RCEP is led by China and does not include the United States.
APEC groups Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam.