APEC Summit discusses bilateral FTAs on the sidelines
Yuri Kageyama and Jim Gomez
AS world leaders held their annual talks on building a free trade zone that circles the Pacific, they were also spending time in sideline huddles forging one-on-one agreements.
That's because the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum's free-trade goals may be a fine idea, but it's often speedier to work out bilateral deals, officials say.
"We're not going to shy away from those," Andre Lemay, spokesman for Canada's APEC delegation, said last Friday. "Dealing one-on-one, it's much simpler."
A meeting on APEC sidelines between Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin and his Japanese counterpart, Junichiro Koizumi, Saturday was expected to take to another level talks that began in January to hammer out a framework for boosting trade and investment between the two nations. Such talks often precede official free trade negotiations.
Year after year, APEC meetings -- including this year's in the South Korean port city of Busan -- have reaffirmed the larger vision for a regional free trade union.
APEC's 21 members, which account for 60 per cent of the world's economy, have the goal of setting up a free trade zone by 2010 for industrialised nations, and developing ones by 2020.
Each year at their summit, leaders reaffirm their commitment to the goal and endorse a raft of "action plans" and "peer reviews" monitoring progress toward it. But some analysts and business executives who take part in APEC meetings worry that progress it too slow.
In the meantime, the two-nation free trade agreements, or FTAs, keep on coming.
"FTAs are all the rage. They're in," said Keiichiro Kobayashi, an economics expert at the Research Institute of Economy Trade and Industry in Tokyo.
Kobayashi warned the appeal of multilateral agreements could be dimmed by sprouting two-way accords, although the global economy is likely to benefit more from all-encompassing agreements in the long run. Some nations are even worried about getting left behind if they don't get bilateral arrangements, he said.
During the leaders' meetings last Friday and Saturday, nearly all the participants made statements welcoming free trade agreements, which encouraged economic ties among Asian nations, Japanese Foreign Ministry Deputy Director-General Satoru Satoh said.
Last Friday, China and Chile signed a bilateral free trade accord, China's first with a Latin American country.
Within hours, Chile and Japan announced they were kicking off talks toward a free trade agreement (FTA). The decision, which came at a meeting last Friday between Chilean President Ricardo Lagos and Koizumi, followed a year-long study by both sides, a joint statement said.
South Korea agreed to strengthen economic cooperation with Peru, and later Panama, last week on the sidelines of APEC.
During his APEC visit, Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo said his nation was finishing negotiating free trade agreements with the United States, Thailand, Singapore and Chile, and had started talks with China.
The rush of such deals prompted Jae-hyun Hyun, head of APEC's Business Advisory Council, composed of business people from each of the 21 member economies, to urge leaders to get serious about global trade discussions and pointed to the spread of bilateral pacts as a reflection of stalled wider talks.
Roberto R. Romulo, chairman of the Philam Insurance Co. Inc. and a member of the ABAC, said FTAs went against the principle of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which has been faltering in trying to reach a global trade accord.
"We believe in the long term there has to be a common template," he said.
Lemay, the Canadian delegate, said efforts to achieve wider trade rules were still important in offering "a level playing field" for participants.
"Both have their place," he said.
Meanwhile, Asia-Pacific leaders, including US President George W Bush and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, last Saturday condemned terrorist acts, and pledged to dismantle extremist groups.
"These acts constitute a clear challenge to APEC's goal of advancing prosperity and its complementary mission of enhancing security," the leaders of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum said in a joint statement at the end of their annual summit in the heavily guarded South Korean port city of Busan.
The tight security at the summit's venue, where a no-fly zone was imposed and authorities deployed tens of thousands of ground and naval forces, reflected their concern over potential attacks.
APEC, launched in 1989, has focused on ways to bolster trade and establish a free trade area by 2020, but expanded its scope to include terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. Al-Qaida linked militants continue to plot and carry out attacks in the region, orchestrating suicide bombings that have killed 244 people since 2002 in Indonesia alone.
"We condemn terrorist acts in the region that took thousands of lives and aimed to destabilise economic prosperity and security in the Asia-Pacific region," the leaders said.
Wary that terrorists might be trying to cripple global trade, the leaders welcomed several projects aimed at shielding trade activities and economic development from attacks. One US initiative would assess sometime in 2006 the vulnerability of member countries' key international airports to attacks by terrorists using shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles.
They also cited projects, approved by their ministers in pre-summit meetings in Busan, designed to secure ship-laden cargo and ensure safe travel in a region where Osama bin Laden's operatives had once planned to simultaneously bomb a dozen US airliners flying from Southeast Asia to the US mainland in the mid-1990s.
One project, the Regional Movement Alert List, is designed to alert a country on the arrival of a suspected terrorist or criminal by requiring nations to relay information 24 hours in advance to immigration and customs authorities about a passenger en route to that country. The United States and Australia have started enforcing the project and New Zealand was expected to join later this year, APEC officials said.
Reflecting US concern about the reported presence of al-Qaida militants in Southeast Asia, Bush met seven leaders of the region last Friday on the sidelines of the APEC summit to discuss counterterrorism cooperation.
During their meeting, Yudhoyono discussed the killing of Malaysian terrorist suspect Azahari bin Husin in an October 09 police raid on his hide-out in a resort town east of Indonesia's capital of Jakarta.
Bush and other leaders congratulated Yudhoyono, but acknowledged that other militants continue to plot attacks in the region and underscored the need to continue a protracted battle against terrorism.