YOKOHAMA — Leaders from the 21 Pacific Rim economies kicked off a two-day meeting here Saturday to push free trade as a precursor to regional economic integration sometime in the next decade.
In the course of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit this year, member economies have been searching for a viable road map for establishing the Free Trade Area of Asia-Pacific.
As the current APEC chair, Japan hopes to hammer out a joint statement this weekend setting 2020 as the target year for the FTAAP pact.
Before the summit, Prime Minister Naoto Kan told business leaders from the region that he was determined to lead the two-day conference toward that goal.
“APEC must continue evolving,” he told the APEC CEO summit Saturday morning. This year’s meeting “will have deep discussions on APEC’s core principle — that is, to liberalize and facilitate trade and investment — and will touch on the details of how we will build FTAAP, which will allow freer exchanges of people, materials and money.”
The idea for an Asia-Pacific free-trade area was first brought up by the APEC Business Advisory Council in 2004 and then proposed by U.S. President George W. Bush during the 2006 APEC forum in Vietnam.
The key to setting up FTAAP will be to forge smaller free-trade frameworks. One of these is the U.S.-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, which has Japanese farmers scared that cheap farm products from overseas will overwhelm their highly protected markets.
Originally set up by Singapore, New Zealand, Chile and Brunei in 2006, the TPP now has the United States, Australia, Peru, Vietnam and Malaysia all negotiating for entry this year.
Last week, Kan tentatively adopted a new basic policy toward free trade, saying the government will start consultations with the TPP countries to gather information on the pact. His reluctance to make a full-fledged commitment was widely taken as a compromise with the farming sector and members of his ruling party who were elected from agricultural regions.
Kan cited the historic change after the Edo Period (1603-1868), saying the nation finally opened up and started overseas trade.
“I’d like to tell you that Japan has decided to widely open up the country again,” Kan said, underscoring the basic trade policy OK’d last week.
Although Japan has been slow get on the wave of global free-trade movements, it will aim to establish high-level economic partnerships with other countries, he said.