APEC Meeting To Explore Asia-Pacific Free Trade Agreement

By Nadine Siak
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington –- Leaders and foreign ministers attending the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) annual meeting are expected to discuss a potential free trade agreement (FTA) within the Asia-Pacific region, according to a senior U.S. administration official.

Leaders from the 21 member APEC economies - Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Chinese Taipei (Taiwan), Thailand, the United States and Vietnam - also are expected to discuss how to rejuvenate stalled World Trade Organization talks on the Doha Development Agenda when they meet November 18 and November 19 in Hanoi, Vietnam.  APEC foreign and trade ministers will be meeting separately in Hanoi prior to the Leaders' Meeting.  (See related article.)

President Bush will visit Singapore prior to Hanoi and will follow his attendance at APEC with a visit to Indonesia.  (See related article.)

The APEC meeting's focus will be on advancing economic growth, trade liberalization and trade-related security, said the official briefing on background at the State Department’s Foreign Press Center in Washington November 13.  As part of that discussion, the leaders will examine “what sorts of analysis and what sorts of working groups might be established over the next year to really understand what would need to be accomplished to make a free trade agreement of the Asia-Pacific a reality and what the benefits would be to the members of APEC,” the official said.

“I think that the idea here would be to lay out a map of all the things that would be evaluated over the next 12 months so that this could be a topic for future discussions at next year's APEC,” he continued.

He said the idea for such an FTA did not originate with the United States, nor did he expect Bush to propose such an FTA at this year’s meeting.

“It's an idea frankly that's been contemplated for many years, most recently in 2004 when ABAC [APEC Business Advisory Council], the business arm of APEC, came forward with that idea,” the official said.

ABAC is a private sector body comprising up to three senior business people from each APEC economy.  Its mandate is to offer recommendations to APEC leaders and advise APEC officials on business sector priorities and concerns. In 2004, ABAC members voiced concern over their perception that APEC was not on track to achieve its goals of free and open trade and investment in the region - in 2010 for developed economies, 2020 for developing economies - on a schedule established by APEC leaders in 1994.

In their 2006 Report to APEC Economic Leaders, ABAC members reiterated their complaint that the Asia-Pacific region’s current  “proliferation” of bilateral and plurilateral preferential trade agreements is unnecessarily burdensome in terms of “adding to the complexity of doing business,” but acknowledged that negotiating an Asia-Pacific FTA at this time might be difficult.

The official also said he expected extensive discussions on Iran and North Korea at the meeting.

The official reiterated that North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are not a U.S. issue, but one of concern for all nations.  (See The U.S. and the Korean Peninsula.)

“This is an issue of security for an entire region, for the trans-Pacific region, and therefore having the leaders or foreign ministers get together and discuss this issue is very important,” the official said.  “And it’s not just about North Korean missiles and nuclear weapons.  It is also about human rights in North Korea and the terrifically poor condition in which North Korean people are forced to live because their leadership would prefer to spend money on weapons of mass destruction than on building their economy.”

The official transcript of the briefing is available on the State Department Web site.

For more information on U.S. policy, see Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).

More information on APEC is available at the APEC Secretariat's Web site.  ABAC’s 2006 report is available on the organization's Web site.