APEC leaders pledge to turn free-trade dreams into reality

Sunday, 14 November 2010 22:26 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

YOKOHAMA, Japan,(AFP) - Pacific Rim leaders including the US and China pledged Sunday to turn their dreams of a vast free-trade zone embracing more than half the world’s economic output into reality.

The 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum resolved to resist the forces of protectionism as the world recovers from a painful downturn, and to work together to regain the growth momentum.

“We remain committed to maintaining open markets and fighting protectionism. We reaffirm our common resolve to support the recovery in a collaborative and coordinated way,” they said in a statement.

APEC’s grand plan is for a Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP) that would link both sides of the Pacific and embrace some 40 percent of the world’s population, but until now it has remained a vague and long-term goal.

“We have agreed that now is the time for APEC to translate FTAAP from an aspirational to a more concrete vision,” the leaders said in a statement at the end of a two-day summit in Japan’s port city of Yokohama.

“To that end, we instruct APEC to take concrete steps towards realisation of an FTAAP, which is a major instrument to further APEC’s regional economic integration agenda.”They said the pact should not exist only in a narrow sense, but must be “comprehensive, high quality and incorporate and address ‘next generation’ trade and investment issues.”US President Barack Obama made an appeal to tear down trade barriers Saturday as APEC leaders convened after turbulence at the Group of 20 summit in Seoul, and under the cloud of tensions between its biggest economies.

Obama also pushed China on its flood of exports aided by a cheap yuan, undeterred by the knockback at G20 which rejected US policy proposals for binding targets on trade and currency to rebalance the global economy.

The APEC leaders’ statement sidestepped differences between the US and China on what paths to take towards the grand trade plan, listing the alphabet-soup of various regional forums as equally valid.

China favours the 13-nation “ASEAN Plus 3” which takes in the 10-member Southeast Asia bloc as well as China, Japan and South Korea -- a forum where the US is not present and Beijing carries considerable heft.

Obama said however that the US, which hosts next year’s APEC summit in Hawaii, wants to pursue the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a proposed free trade zone that now includes Brunei, Singapore, Chile and New Zealand.

The United States, Australia and three other countries are now in talks to join the grouping, which would eliminate most tariffs and other trade barriers and is seen as a vehicle towards a much wider Pacific Rim treaty.

With WTO negotiations in limbo, and warnings rife of a return to protectionism, talks to expand the TPP seem to be the only hope of regaining momentum in global trade reform, analysts say.

Leaders of the TPP group met for the first time in Yokohama on Sunday to advance the forum which the White House described as “the most advanced pathway” to regional economic integration.

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera has said the summit-level talks will now become a regular event.

“We cannot lose time,” he said in a report Saturday. “We have to move fast. And for that, we need a lot of leadership and courage.”Other economies are watching closely but many are torn between not wanting to be left out, and reluctance to make the deep commitments TPP membership could require.

At the APEC meeting Sunday, Chinese President Hu Jintao gave assurances that the regional giant, which has alarmed its neighbours with an increasingly assertive posture on territorial disputes, presented no threat.

“China remains committed to... the regional policy of building good-neighbourliness and friendship,” he said in a speech.

Obama’s tour of Asia which concludes in Japan has been aimed at propelling renewed US engagement in the region, which has been welcomed by many smaller nations as a counterbalance to China.

Hu came to Japan with a feud raging between Asia’s biggest economies over a territorial dispute centred on disputed East China Sea islands where Japan arrested a Chinese fishing captain in September.

In a diplomatic breakthrough Saturday, Hu and Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan held formal talks, their first since the row started, and emerged with warm comments that represented a major thaw.

Obama drives free trade plan to tap into dynamic Asia

YOKOHAMA, Japan (AFP) - US President Barack Obama and eight Asia Pacific leaders met Sunday to push forward a once-obscure free trade plan they now call “the most advanced pathway” to economic integration.

The group did not include China -- the world’s number-two economy and biggest exporter -- which favours negotiating trade reforms in alternative forums that include only Asian economies and not the United States. Obama, in Japan for a wider summit of 21 Pacific Rim economies, is promoting instead the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which had ambitious goals of eliminating almost all trade barriers between members.

The US leader, on an Asia tour after bruising mid-term election losses, hailed the benefits of free trade Saturday, saying that “with every one billion dollars we sell in exports, 5,000 jobs are supported at home.”The White House said that at Sunday’s meeting “the leaders noted that, with the negotiations well underway, TPP is now the most advanced pathway to Asia-Pacific regional economic integration”.

“They also reiterated their goal of expanding the initial group of countries out in stages to other countries across the region, which represents more than half of global output and over 40 percent of world trade.” For now the TPP has just four signed-up countries -- Brunei, Chile, Singapore and New Zealand -- but five others are in talks to join the group: the United States, Australia, Malaysia, Peru and Vietnam. Malaysia joined the process for the first time on Sunday, Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan attended as an observer, and South Korea has reportedly indicated interest in joining.