BUSAN, South Korea, Nov 20 (AFP): After pointing a collective finger of blame at Europe over farm subsidies, cracks were emerging today in the show of unity by Asia-Pacific leaders on free trade.
The 21 members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, whose economies account for some 60 per cent of world trade, issued a statement here Saturday demanding deep cuts in European Union farm subsidies.
They said that Europe's refusal to make concessions threatened to derail World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks scheduled for Hong Kong next month.
But by Sunday, Japan had already threatened to break ranks and take a pragmatic stand alongside Europe in the subsidies dispute in Hong Kong.
"APEC is APEC, WTO is WTO," said a Japanese official, adding:
"We are still willing to join hands with the EU on a necessary basis during the WTO meeting in Hong Kong next month."
European trade officials are upset at the finger-pointing from the Asia-Pacific body, some of whose members operate more lavish protectionist systems than the EU.
Japan and South Korea offer massive support to their farmers, and neither looks ready to make the kind of concessions APEC wants from Europe, the European officials say.
Some APEC members, aware of the contradictions, have been calling on their own members to fall in line on the issue of subsidy reduction.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard grouped the EU and Japan, as well as others he declined to mention by name, together when he called for farm subsidy cuts here.
Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin had also singled out Japan. But Tokyo plans to dig in its heels, according to a Japanese official.
Japan and South Korea are members of the Group of 10 countries seeking to protect their farmers against pressure for liberalisation in the WTO talks.
South Korea's 3.6 million farmers are among the most protected in the world. They are currently fighting an accord that opens South Korea's rice markets just a fraction, allowing imports to take up eight percent of consumption.
For its part Japan imposes 75 per cent average tariffs on imports, rising to 778 per cent for rice.
Meanwhile, APEC has staked a claim for a global leadership role providing a counterweight to the European Union, but analysts warn its efforts are doomed to failure without radical reform.
Atop the list of problems facing the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum after last week's summit in South Korea is the plethora of sometimes competing free trade agreements (FTAs) among members.
APEC has long insisted that FTAs boost the cause of global free trade, and the two-day meeting in the South Korean port of Busan saw a raft of new announcements.
China and Chile signed a free trade deal, while Canada and Japan, Chile and Japan and the United States and Southeast Asian nations all made preliminary moves which could result in agreements.
Privately, officials and business executives grumble at the organisation's sleepy pace and express doubts about its ability to act effectively, given its consensus structure and non-binding agreements.