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Senior officials from Pacific Rim economies will agree on the need for a free-trade zone in the region when they meet in Hiroshima on Monday and Tuesday, according to a draft of the agenda.

The 21 members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum aim to “agree on how to explore possible pathways to an FTAAP building on existing analytical studies,” the draft said, referring to the potential of the zone, dubbed the Free Trade Area in the Asia Pacific.

This year, Japan assumes APEC’s rotating chairmanship, which involves China, Russia and the United States, and will host a series of meetings, including ministerial talks and a summit in November.

The draft, obtained Sunday, also says that the officials will have “broad policy discussions, including on resisting protectionism and supporting the multilateral trade system” under the rules of the World Trade Organization.

The WTO aims to conclude the stalled Doha Round of trade talks this year. The original deadline for the round, launched in 2001, was 2005.

Experts say the 153-member WTO needs a breakthrough on such crucial topics as tariff cuts and reducing export subsidies by summer, when APEC holds its trade ministers’ meeting.

Such a breakthrough is only possible with concessions from key players, including Brazil, India and the United States. Experts say it won’t be easy.

Agenda for APEC officials’ meeting

Kyodo News

Officials of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum aim to:

• Agree on how to explore possible pathways to a free-trade area in the Asia-Pacific region building on existing analytical studies.

• Review the progress made so far on the Bogor Goals of liberalizing trade and investment in the region and agree on the next step to be taken.

• Work on the basic direction for developing APEC’s “growth strategy.”

• Discuss how APEC should be best structured to meet upcoming challenges.

Some APEC officials suggest, however, that failure to achieve a WTO breakthrough won’t harm efforts to free up trade and investment. They argue that it may even strengthen APEC’s resolve to turn the FTAAP into a new framework to enhance trade among the Asia-Pacific economies.

Prospects are not all bright, however. APEC, which represents half the world’s global economic output and some 40 percent of its population, is a huge regional economy with conditions that vary from member to member.

Attempting to agree on a single opinion is so difficult that one APEC official views the FTAAP as completely different from an FTA, describing it as a “legally nonbinding” free-trade zone.

Emerging power China has been widely viewed as cautious about the United States establishing a strong foothold in Asia, preferring to pursue economic integration with Japan, China, South Korea and the Southeast Asian countries. This would exclude some APEC members, including Australia, a U.S. ally in the region.

The Hiroshima meeting, the first formal event on Japan’s APEC list, will also revolve around such issues as engineering a “growth strategy” for the grouping and ensuring human security that focuses on cooperation toward food safety and disaster prevention.

Another crucial issue will be assessing how far the grouping’s most advanced economies have progressed on APEC’s Bogor Goals of trade and investment liberalization, set 16 years ago.

The goals, named after the Indonesian city where APEC cemented the agreement in 1994 and implemented under the Osaka Action Plan charted in 1995, when Japan last chaired the forum, set liberalization targets for developed nations by 2010 and for less-developed members by 2020.

APEC will review how trade and investment have been freed thanks to the initiatives of the WTO and various bilateral or multilateral accords in the region.

In Hiroshima, senior officials are expected to discuss the first draft of the assessment report on the Bogor Goals, note the progress made and agree on the next step to be taken.

APEC trade ministers, who are to meet in Hokkaido in June, are likely to agree on the final draft of the assessment before approving it at the November summit in Yokohama.

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