In a speech to an ASEAN business and investment conference yesterday, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said that the bloc must not accept trade and investment measures that might be unfair to member countries.
World leaders gathered in the tropical city-state this week for a summit where a massive Beijing-backed agreement covering half the world's population has dominated discussions.
China's attempt to seal Asia's biggest trade deal stalled at a regional summit in Singapore, despite Beijing's efforts to counter American protectionism and the absence of US President Donald Trump.
Known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the trade deal would cover nearly half the world's population.
That was echoed by summit host Singaporean Prime Lee Hsien Loong, who told a welcome ceremony for his ASEAN counterparts that "the worldwide order is at a turning point".
"We are determined to finish everything by next year, 2019", he added. The deal is due to take effect on Dec, 30.
In between the summits he missed, Duterte managed to attend the ASEAN meetings with China, Russia, and Japan.
He has renegotiated an existing pact with South Korea and the three-way deal with Mexico and Canada, and pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, which involved four Southeast Asian states.
The RCEP has always been seen as a rival to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, now renamed the Comprehensive Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal that was spearheaded by the United States until Trump withdrew American involvement past year.
China was now the standard bearer of global free trade, he added, with the 16-member RCEP deal at the heart of its strategy.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) echoed those sentiments in a speech in Singapore yesterday, saying that he hoped the RCEP talks would be completed next year.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Tuesday his participation in the Asean-India and East Asia Summits in Singapore reflects India's "continued commitment" to strengthen its engagement with Asean members and the wider Indo-Pacific region.
US National Security Adviser John Bolton said on Tuesday that the US objected to China's unilateral military steps in the disputed waters.
He blamed a "schedule crunch" after a particularly frenetic few weeks that included the midterm elections, attending the World War I armistice commemorations in France and preparing for the G20 in Argentina later this month.
India's concerns over opening its markets to competition, in particular from Chinese firms, has been a key obstacle in the several years of negotiations.
Disagreements on intellectual property rights, goods tariffs, and financial services are also on a long list of issues that still need to be concluded.
"It's going to send a message to the worldwide community that we stand by free trade... with rising protectionism and strains on free trade we need to advance the RCEP negotiations", Li said.
"They are actually oppressing these people to the point of, well, killing them, mass killing, and burial in graves dug by the victims and that kind of thing", said Mahathir, a 93-year-old political veteran whose own past treatment of dissidents at times drew opprobrium.