Business leaders must work to reject the 'nation first concept,' CEO says

  • Free trade versus protectionism is a dominant theme at the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos, according to the president and CEO of Suntory, the maker of several alcohol and soft drink brands
  • Business leaders need to support free trade penetration, and agreements such as TPP-11 and NAFTA, to "resist the prevailing protectionism," the executive told CNBC

Free trade versus protectionism is a dominant theme at the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos, according to the president and CEO of Suntory.

The Japanese executive, Takeshi Niinami, argued that free trade agreements between countries, and market penetration are more important than ever in order to "reject the nation first concept."

Business leaders need to "support free trade penetrating to other countries" through large-scale agreements, which are "so important to resist the prevailing protectionism," Niinami told CNBC.

The CEO pointed to both NAFTA and the TPP-11 — the group of 11 countries that remained committed to forging a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement after President Donald Trump pulled out of in 2017 — as examples of such deals.

Trump's TPP decision, widely seen as a U.S. turn to protectionist behavior, falls in line with his "America First" rhetoric.

Takeshi Niinami, president and CEO of Suntory, speaks during a press conference in Tokyo on January 15, 2016.
Toru Yamanaka | AFP | Getty Images
Takeshi Niinami, president and CEO of Suntory, speaks during a press conference in Tokyo on January 15, 2016.

Despite the growth in protectionist rhetoric globally, the CEO said he remains optimistic on the direction the Japanese economy is headed.

"Overall, the economy is pretty good. I believe that economic growth will hit over 1.5 percent," Niinami said. "The people are getting more confident about the future."

Many companies have said that they do not forecast such strong growth for the country.

But according to Niinami, by engaging in research and development and keeping products unique there is still room for companies to grow.