11/18/2006, 00.00
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APEC starts: free trade and North Korean threat are major issues

Expectation is rife in Hanoi about a proposal to set up a regional free trade zone. Vietnam wants to show the international community how efficient it is, organizing numerous meetings between leaders of the forum's 21 member states. Uncertainty prevails about whether a meeting will go ahead between the Chinese president and Canadian prime minister, an open critic of Beijing.

Hanoi (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) started today. Leaders and businessmen from 21 member states are participating in the meeting, with an agenda ranging from trade liberalization to human rights to the North Korean nuclear threat. The meeting ends tomorrow. Already in the days leading up to the meeting, ministers and representatives from various countries have been discussing and drafting issues to be tackled.

Yesterday the US president George W. Bush arrived in Vietnam. This is the first significant international encounter for Bush since the Republic Party's electoral defeat in mid-term elections. The Chinese leader, Hu Jintao, as well as Russia's Vladimir Putin and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are also attending the summit. Apart from the official deliberations at the summit, attention is focused on bilateral meetings anticipated between heads of state and governments. For the moment, a meeting between Hu and the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has been suspended. Harper is an open critic of the Communist regime and he has made it clear that "Canadians do not want to sell out important Canadian values, our belief in democracy, freedom, human rights", in a reference to trade links with Beijing. Canada has often criticised China for persecuting Christians and members of Falun Gong and in September, the Canadian government granted honorary citizenship to Tibet's spiritual leader and an opponent of Beijing, the Dalai Lama. Expectation is rife for the resumption of negotiations to eliminate obstacles to global free trade, after they were interrupted in July in Switzerland because of deep differences about matters like state subsidies for one's own farmers and tariff barriers in the agricultural sector. At the very least, resumption within opinion groups to reach common stands is expected. By the end of the year, Vietnam will join the World Trade Organization (WTO) and Russia intends to follow as soon as possible.

But above all, concrete steps are expected for the creation of a free trade zone among Pacific states, from China to Chile, which could even constitute an alternative to the World Trade Organization that is ever more gripped by crisis. There is talk of proceeding with the elimination of all trade barriers in the area by 2010 for more developed countries and by 2020 for developing countries. Experts say it is especially in the interests of the United States to promote the proposal to create a privileged forum for bi and multilateral trade agreements, which may prevail over many consultative organisms that Southeast Asian states belong to, and to contain the growing influence of Beijing.

But it is also in the interests of countries belonging to the most rapidly developing region in the world, not least because "countries are not preparing themselves well enough before embarking on these negotiations", according to Rahul Sen, a trade economist with the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. They are unaware of benefits that could be gained from bilateral agreements, so they often end up at a disadvantage compared to powerful and aggressive states like China. Further, international agreements would allow for more attention to be devoted to the rights of workers, often sacrificed by their governments to attract more foreign investment.

APEC is not an association but a forum, which met for the first time in 1989 to discuss economic and trade matters, that later expanded to include international security and terrorism. During these two days, the North Korean nuclear question will be discussed in a bid to set a date to resume six-party talks between the two Koreas, the USA, China, Russia and Japan. Christopher Hill, head of the US delegation, hopes could talks start again as early as December.

Vietnam, the country with the highest growth rate after China, wants to gain recognition as a serious and trustworthy economic and political partner and it has organized a series of conferences and debates on the sidelines of the APEC meeting, with the participation of world leaders, including China's President Hu.

The following countries are members of APEC: 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 United States and Vietnam.

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