APEC free trade a key issue under Japan’s leadership

Kyodo News

The government said Wednesday it will accelerate efforts to get Pacific Rim economies to create a free-trade area during a series of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum meetings next year, stressing the importance of sharing views among its 21 members.

Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada’s pledge at a two-day APEC symposium in Tokyo, which effectively marked the start of Japan’s chairmanship in 2010, comes amid signs of difficulty reaching a consensus in the diversified regional body, with some members wary of the United States securing its presence in Asia.

“As the chair, we would like to encourage discussions to explore building blocks toward” a possible regional free-trade area, Okada said at the symposium joined by government and private-sector officials from the member economies.

But he also said Japan needs to “listen to voices that call for building a common view.”

APEC, established in 1989 as a gathering to boost trade among its members, held its annual summit last month in Singapore.

The leaders acknowledged the potential benefits of creating a free-trade area, but their joint declaration after the summit also underscored that an analytical study has identified “the challenges of establishing such an agreement.”

The result added to heated debate over which grouping would be the most suitable to deepen regional cooperation and integration, with China widely seen as being cautious about U.S. participation and favoring a tighter union consisting of Japan, China, South Korea and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

APEC accounts for more than half of global economic output and more than 40 percent of world trade value.