Steps vowed on region trade goals

Finance chiefs also agree to ban new barriers through 2013, resist pressure for protectionism


YOKOHAMA — Foreign and trade ministers from the Asia-Pacific region affirmed Thursday the importance of taking concrete steps toward achieving a regionwide free-trade zone.

Ministers of the 21 economies in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum concluded a two-day meeting in Yokohama with a joint statement stressing the increasing importance of the region as a growth center in the global economy as well as agreeing on the need to reinforce regional economic integration.

“I believe we were able to build a good foundation for the future of APEC,” Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said during a news conference after the meeting. “Through our discussions, I became convinced that APEC has and will continue to play an important role globally and that it will pave the way for the future of the Asia-Pacific region as well as the world.”

The ministers issued a separate statement expressing their commitment to concluding the World Trade Organization’s Doha Round and to resist protectionism.

“Open markets are vital for growth and job creation, enabling strong and sustainable growth in the region,” the statement says. “While the world economy is on its way to recovery, however, there still remains a possibility of increasing protectionist pressures in the future.”

Concern over protectionism is running high among APEC economies, as China, which currently controls 97 percent of the global supply of rare earth materials, allegedly halted their export to Japan amid the diplomatic tension over the disputed Senkaku Islands.

Without naming names, the statement calls for an extension of a ban on new trade barriers among APEC members until 2013. The statement was approved unanimously, including by China, according to a Foreign Ministry official.

“We confirmed that we strongly oppose the flow of protectionism, including export restrictions,” said trade minister Akihiro Ohata.

On the stalled WTO talks, the ministers called 2011 a “critically important window of opportunity” and expressed their intention to aim to conclude the talks by the end of next year.

During the two-day talks, the officials discussed possible pathways to establish the U.S.-proposed Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP), including existing frameworks such as ASEAN Plus Three, ASEAN Plus Six and the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.

The discussion was expected to continue at the APEC summit Saturday and Sunday.

Japan recently expressed its intention to begin consultations to study the TPP, the negotiations for which have already started among nine countries, including the U.S. But strong opposition remains among some ruling-coalition lawmakers over the effect it would have on the domestic farm sector, and it is still unclear whether Tokyo will be able to join the framework.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, who attended the meeting, welcomed Japan’s interest.

Agreements like the TPP are “critical to the long-term mission of APEC,” Steinberg said. “We see the TPP initiative as a critical component of building this strong growth strategy for the future and welcome this expression of interest.”