APEC affirms ‘significant progress’ on free trade goals

SAPPORO (Kyodo) Trade ministers from Pacific Rim economies on Sunday trumpeted the “significant progress” made toward attaining self-imposed goals to free up regional trade, while embracing the need to make concrete efforts with a view to creating a region-wide free trade zone.

Noting that the Asia-Pacific region is now gaining weight in the global economy, they also called for a regional growth strategy to be devised at their leaders’ summit in Yokohama in November that Japan as chair hopes would be a key component of new policy goals envisaged for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

“We hope to compile in the summit new policy goals that look at the future of the Asia-Pacific by accelerating talks on concrete efforts in three areas — economic integration, growth strategy and human security,” said Japanese Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Masayuki Naoshima after a two-day meeting of the 21-member forum.

But going into details of APEC’s future course, such as on whether to set a time frame for realizing regional economic integration, is likely to expose differences within the forum known for its diversity, thus making it difficult for Japan to swiftly come up with a consensus.

The gathering in Sapporo, Hokkaido, was the first ministerial meeting hosted by Japan as the forum’s chair this year and will be followed by meetings involving other ministers such as those in charge of energy, agriculture and finance. The talks are intended to lay the groundwork for APEC leaders to issue an annual joint statement at their summit.

Naoshima, who co-chaired the ministerial meeting, told a joint press conference with representatives from other countries that “it was confirmed that there has been significant progress toward (trade) liberalization and facilitation” under APEC’s 1994 goals for freer trade and investment.

He also said that the participants at the same time cited the need for more efforts to be made in various areas ranging from tariff reduction to domestic regulatory reforms.

The Bogor Goals, named after the Indonesian city where APEC leaders reached the agreement on them, commit developed economies to achieving free and open trade and investment by 2010, and developing economies by 2020.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry says that the average applied tariff rate among APEC member economies was reduced to 6.6 percent in 2008, compared with 16.9 percent in 1989 when the forum was launched. It is also lower than the global average of 10.4 percent in 2008.

The final assessment of the extent to which certain APEC member economies have achieved the Bogor Goals will be left up to the summit.

Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and the United States are subject to the progress assessment this year, along with other economies that have volunteered for early assessment — Chile, Hong Kong, South Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Singapore and Taiwan.

To deepen economic integration, the member economies will continue to explore “possible pathways” to a proposed Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, or FTAAP, and the ministers agreed on the need to produce “concrete outcomes” by November in areas such as investment, and environmental goods and services, according to the chair’s statement issued after the meeting.

With regard to the proposed new policy goals for APEC, dubbed the Yokohama goals after the city where APEC leaders will gather in November, Japan is seeking the inclusion of APEC’s growth strategy, a future vision of regional economic integration, and a cooperative response to potential obstacles to trade such as infectious diseases.

But Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, who jointly chaired the Sapporo talks with Naoshima, indicated it may not be an easy task to put the goals together.

“We need to talk about the substance of the Yokohama goals,” he told the press conference, pointing to questions about whether to make them specific ones with numerical targets or to make them something various countries can easily agree on.

Approaches to the creation of an FTAAP is also disparate, with such countries as China asserting that it is better for the potential free-trade zone to start with smaller frameworks such as the so-called “ASEAN plus three,” which groups Japan, China, South Korea and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Following discussions involving World Trade Organization Director General Pascal Lamy, the ministers released a separate statement that expressed the “unwavering determination” to bring the ailing Doha Round of global market-opening talks to a successful conclusion “as soon as possible.”

But the statement failed to stipulate the 2010 target year for the WTO to complete the Doha Round, under way since 2001, possibly reflecting the awareness that the chance of meeting the deadline is almost nil.

APEC, which makes up more than half the world’s economic output and 44 percent of its trade value, also involves Russia and some of the countries that belong to ASEAN.

The trade ministers’ talks took place on the heels of Japan’s political instability spawned by Yukio Hatoyama’s abrupt resignation from the prime minister’s post, but went ahead as scheduled as Prime Minister-elect Naoto Kan is set to be sworn in as the nation’s new leader on Tuesday.