Singapore (AFP) Nov 12, 2009
Asia-Pacific economies pledged Thursday to pursue a giant free-trade zone covering 2.6 billion people and called for easier access to green technology to combat climate change.
Foreign and trade ministers of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group said they would direct their officials to study ways to achieve the long-term vision for a "Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific", or FTAAP.
The proposed area would cover APEC's 21 member economies, stretching from Chile to China via the United States. They account for 40 percent of the world's population of 6.7 billion people and over half its economic output.
"APEC will work towards reducing barriers not only within APEC, but also with other non-APEC economies," the ministers said in a statement ahead of a leaders' summit this weekend to be attended by US President Barack Obama.
The ministers also pledged to open up trade on environmental goods and services as part of efforts to fight climate change and achieve sustainable economic growth.
Man-made climate change "is one of the biggest challenges facing the world", the ministers said after a two-day meeting in Singapore, and ahead of an international conference on global warming in Denmark next month.
"We will seek to ensure that economic growth is consistent with sustainable development," they said.
"We will also take steps to facilitate the diffusion of climate-friendly... technologies," they said, adding they will work to improve energy efficiency and rehabilitate the region's forests.
World Trade Organisation director-general Pascal Lamy, who attended the Singapore meetings, welcomed APEC's efforts on green technology.
"I believe that again the pragmatic role, which is opening more green goods and services than the rest (of the world), makes a lot of sense," Lamy said.
"We are trying to do this in the World Trade Organization, but if APEC was to take the lead, that would be a good thing," he said, as the APEC members pledged to work to unblock the WTO's long-stalled Doha round of global talks.
The idea of a Pacific-wide free-trade area got a cool reception when it was first mooted by the United States in 2006. But it has gained traction as the Doha round has sunk deeper into trouble.
Officials cautioned, however, that the Pacific Rim trade zone remained a long-term ambition with APEC already struggling to meet a goal of eliminating all trade barriers among its developed members by next year.
"People are saying that because APEC has 21 members, it is such a huge community and stages of the economies are quite different," Shih Yen-shiang, Taiwan's minister for economic affairs, told reporters.
Singapore Trade Minister Lim Hng Kiang said transforming APEC into a trans-Pacific free-trade area will involve tough negotiations similar to those for the stalled Doha Round.
"It's not a small undertaking," Lim told a news conference.
"Once you say you're going into negotiations for an FTA, I think the group dynamics, the atmospherics will change," he said, contrasting them to the non-binding discussions at APEC.
But he also said that for businesses to reap concrete benefits, any grouping in the end "has to be structural, it has to be obligatory and there has to be dispute settlement mechanisms."
The region already has a patchwork of 42 bilateral and regional free-trade agreements, which would need to be harmonized.
There is also a small trans-Pacific free-trade pact involving Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore, and there are hopes that the United States and other countries will sign on to it to form the basis for an FTAAP, officials say.
Japanese trade minister Masayuki Naoshima said the FTAAP "could suddenly appear as a result of accumulating various cooperations" such as the free-trade pact between Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
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