APEC faces ‘political’ obstacles to free trade area, Lee says

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The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group faces “political” hurdles in its vision to form a region-wide free trade area, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said.

The 21 APEC economies will step up efforts to achieve their “long-term” goal for the Free Trade Area of the Asia- Pacific, or FTAAP, leaders including China’s Hu Jintao and Japan’s Yukio Hatoyama said in discussions in Singapore Friday. US President Barack Obama, who arrived in Singapore last night, will meet his counterparts Sunday.

“Political conditions need to be right before negotiations for a region-wide FTAAP could be launched,” according to a summary of Lee’s comments as he chaired the two- day gathering Friday. “There was consensus among the leaders that APEC economies should step up their efforts to realize this vision, by laying the necessary building blocks and exploring possible pathways.”

Obama on Friday said the US will enter into discussions with countries that are part of the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement, or TPP, with the aim of broadening its base. Several APEC leaders said the TPP is a “possible pathway” toward achieving the long-term goal of a free trade area, the Singapore government statement said.

Australia, Peru and Vietnam are among the other APEC member economies that are interested in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Signatories to the 2005 agreement include Singapore, New Zealand, Brunei and Chile.

Falling behind

APEC is already falling behind on some goals even as it strives for other agreements. Members in 1994 signed the so-called Bogor Declaration, pledging to create free and open trade in the group’s developed economies by 2010 and in its emerging economies by 2020.

APEC’s developed members should adhere to the group’s goal for free trade by next year, Chinese Commerce Minister Chen Deming said Nov. 13. Japan’s Hatoyama Friday said developed APEC economies must assess their progress in meeting their trade goals in 2010.

Leaders have differing visions for the Asia Pacific. The region needs an economic and political grouping, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said Friday, calling for an Asia- Pacific Community by 2020 that includes the US and India. Japan has suggested an “East Asian Community,” whose membership has yet to be determined.

Reject protectionism

Finance ministers this week “reaffirmed their commitment” to achieve the APEC Bogor goals by the timelines that were already set. Singapore’s Lee said Nov. 3 that next year’s target is not likely to be met.

The leaders on Friday also pledged to “reject all forms of protectionism” as they urged for a conclusion to the World Trade Organization’s eight-year-old Doha Round of talks by the end of 2010.

“There was a sense of urgency that as negotiations moved into the end-game, strong political will was critical to break the impasse,” according to the statement.

APEC also needs to focus on areas like regulatory reform and connectivity, the leaders said. Some heads of state suggested increasing regional connectivity by improving land, air and sea transport linkages.

Source: Bloomberg

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