Tuesday, July 10, 2007


As the Doha round of global trade talks flounder, Asia-Pacific commerce ministers said they will do their best to make them succeed -- while at the same time exploring plans for their own free-trade area.

The 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group, which accounts for half the world's trade, urged its 21 members to exert ``political will'' to push the troubled Doha negotiations in Geneva. The group also said ``the time is right'' to pursue regional economic integration and a possible free-trade zone in the Asia- Pacific.

``We discussed various ways to achieve free trade in the region, including the possibility of a free-trade area of the Asia- Pacific as a long-term prospect,'' APEC's trade ministers said in a communique at the close of a two-day meeting in Cairns, Australia.

The Doha round of global trade talks, which are expected to add hundreds of billions of dollars in commerce and lift millions of people out of poverty, came close to collapse two weeks ago in Potsdam, Germany, over disagreements among the U.S., European Union, Brazil and India.

If not successful this year, the World Trade Organization negotiations on freer global trade ``will go into hibernation,'' U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab said yesterday in Cairns.

Talks have stalled over the failure of the U.S., the European Union, India, Brazil and China to open up agricultural and industrial markets and end subsidies.

`Urgent Need'

``There has never been a more urgent need to make progress,'' APEC said in a special statement on the Doha talks. ``We need to make cuts in agricultural and industrial tariffs.''

``We will demonstrate the necessary political will and flexibility, and call upon other World Trade Organization members to do the same,'' the statement read.

Australian Trade Minister Warren Truss released the statement in Cairns yesterday and said: ``It's stronger than any language we've previously used.''

According to Indonesian Trade Minister Mari Pangestu, APEC members in Cairns agreed to exert ``political will'' by individually lobbying Geneva negotiators with their offers for expanding trade and cutting tariffs. ``This is the only real window of opportunity,'' she said.

As many as 30 trade officials are scheduled to meet in Geneva later this month to thrash out differences over agriculture and manufacturing in a bid to arrive at a final series of ``text'' agreements.

Regional Trade Zone

On the group's exploration of an Asia-Pacific free-trade zone, which was discussed at the summit of APEC leaders in Hanoi last year, the group said ``scope exists for more intensive activity across APEC's agenda in support of regional economic integration.''

In Cairns, Schwab said APEC is focused on the Doha round, and the prospect of an Asia-Pacific free-trade zone was remote. ``We're a long, long way from an Asia-Pacific free-trade area,'' she said. ``But you have to do some of the analytic work now. We're talking many years out.''

Lim Jock Seng, Brunei's deputy minister for foreign affairs and trade, said the group was just studying the concept of a free- trade area. ``This is basically preparation,'' he said.

``Our priority remains with the Doha round,'' Truss said today.

``This will be about the fourth or fifth time APEC trade ministers or leaders have called for change in Geneva and it never follows,'' Alan Oxley, Chairman of the APEC Study Center at Australia's Monash University in Melbourne, said in an interview yesterday. ``The key problem is the European community. Until they act significantly to cut their trade barriers in agriculture, things won't move.''

2007 Deadline

APEC was crucial to saving the previous set of trade talks, called the Uruguay Round, in the 1990s, which also floundered on agriculture subsidy issues.

The ambitious and troubled Doha agenda, launched six years ago, has stalled over a failure to reach deals on rice, poultry, bananas and manufactured goods, among others.

The 150-nation World Trade Organization has set a 2007 deadline for the Doha round. Ideally, the framework of a deal should be complete by early August.

The World Bank said in 2005 a successful implementation of Doha could reduce the number of people living in poverty by 32 million within 10 years.

APEC also said it would implement measures to reduce trading costs among its members by 5 percent by 2010, primarily through more transparent import-export procedures.

Trade Costs

Australia's Truss said the standardization of customs procedures across APEC economies, and the better use of the group's business travel cards, among others, could save member economies US$170 billion.

``Implementation of the plan will keep APEC at the forefront of international work to reduce trade transaction costs,'' Truss said.

APEC includes Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, the U.S. and Vietnam.

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