- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 22, 2008

Leaders of 21 Pacific Rim nations are gathering in Peru this weekend to reaffirm their support for a global trade agreement and opposition to investment barriers. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum may also take a big step toward establishing an Asia-Pacific free-trade area.

At its annual summit, APEC is expected to embrace the policies of increased economic stimulus and improved financial regulation that were endorsed at last week’s economic summit in Washington. Nine APEC countries • the United States, Canada, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, Mexico, Australia and Indonesia • attended that meeting.

“The big thing is the further development of a free-trade area of the Asia-Pacific region, which President Bush pushed two years ago,” said C. Fred Bergsten, director of the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Presently, there is a four-member subgroup • the so-called P-4 comprising New Zealand, Chile, Singapore and Brunei • that signed the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement in 2005.

The United States announced in September that it wanted to negotiate membership in the P-4. On Thursday, Australia and Peru said they would enter into free-trade negotiations with the P-4. Mr. Bergsten said that Vietnam may also want to participate, and Japan may express some interest as well.

Mr. Bergsten described such a development as “a coalition of the willing getting together to advance the idea of an Asia-Pacific free-trade area.” Although it would likely take a couple of years of further negotiations, he said developments in Lima would represent “a significant move toward Mr. Bush’s vision expressed in Hanoi two years ago. It has a lot of potential.”

Just as the nations meeting at the Washington economic summit called for a quick completion of the 7-year-old Doha round of global trade talks, so too will the APEC nations, based on the statement issued by their foreign and trade ministers this week. However, analysts do not expect any breakthrough before Mr. Bush leaves office Jan. 20.

Given the skeptical view of trade negotiations expressed during the campaign by President-elect Barack Obama, progress in the Doha talks may become even more difficult to achieve after he enters office. Mr. Obama, who is not attending the APEC summit, opposes the pending free-trade deals with Colombia and South Korea and pledged to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. It is not clear how supportive Mr. Obama would be for an Asia-Pacific free-trade agreement.

“Obama has been saying ambivalent things about trade,” said Charles Freeman, a China scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Therefore, people at the table would be unlikely to commit to a sweeping pathway forward [on Doha] that could be undone January 21.”

Aboard Air Force One en route to Lima, Dan Price, assistant to the president for international economic affairs, explained the importance of APEC.

“The APEC economies account for 55 percent of world GDP, nearly half of world trade and comprise together 41 percent of the world’s population,” Mr. Price said, adding that U.S. goods trade with APEC economies grew from $1.2 trillion in 2001 to nearly $2 trillion in 2007 and now accounts for nearly two-thirds of America’s trade in goods.

Russia also envisions a big future for APEC.

“It is the APEC countries, in particular, that will have to largely assume the task to unravel the world economic crisis,” said Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in an opinion piece published Friday in The Washington Times. “[T]his region will become the locomotive of sustainable world economic development in the future.”

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