Merkel calls for free trade as EU, Asia meet

As disputes fester with Washington, the EU wants to use the 12th summit of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) to build support for the global trading system, as well as the fight against climate change.

Merkel calls for free trade as EU, Asia meet

German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a rallying call for free trade Friday as EU and Asian leaders met to unite in defiance of US President Donald Trump's "America first" approach.

More than 50 senior figures from Asia and Europe gathered in Brussels for the two-day meet, including the prime ministers of China, Japan and Russia.

The leaders are expected to voice their backing for the World Trade Organization (WTO), which Trump has accused of treating the US unfairly.

The mercurial US president has relentlessly pursued a confrontational trade policy, including imposing harsh tariffs on steel and aluminium, and on $250 billion in annual imports from China.

Merkel, the head of Europe's biggest economy which Trump has targeted for criticism, rejected the idea that trade deals must be about winners and losers.

"The summit shows that countries from Europe and Asia, which all want a rule-based world trade, are gathering here to commit themselves to multilateralism and this is an important signal," Merkel told reporters.

"I believe that we can make it clear that the world is about creating win-win situations, making it clear that what benefits one can also benefit the other."

The EU will ink a landmark trade deal with Singapore on the margins of the summit on Friday in what Brussels hopes will be a clear rebuttal of rising US protectionism.

Korean detente will also be on the agenda, with senior EU officials to hold talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Earlier this week Moon said world powers needed to reassure the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that he had taken the right decision in committing to scrap his nuclear weapons programme.

The EU will also seek to shore up support for the beleaguered Iran nuclear deal, which suffered a hammer blow when the US pulled out earlier this year and reimposed sanctions on Iran -- despite the desperate pleas of European allies.

But Europe's desire to build a united front with Asian powers will be tempered by grave concerns about numerous human rights issues in countries across the continent.

The EU has warned Cambodia and Myanmar that they could face losing preferential trading privileges with the bloc over election irregularities and the Rohingya crisis, respectively.

A brutal military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in northern Myanmar which began last year has forced more than 700,000 to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh.

A group of Rohingya organisations demanded the EU use the summit to press Myanmar over the crisis.

"We are appalled that European and Asian leaders have left off their agenda the most urgent refugee crisis in the world -- the plight of the Rohingya," the group said in a statement.