11/18/2004, 00.00
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APEC: the future of a moribund institution

Leaders of 21 Asia-Pacific countries discuss trade, energy, security, terrorism and corruption.

Santiago (AsiaNews) – "One Community, Our Future", is the theme of the 16th annual meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum (APEC). This year's gathering comes amidst analysts' doubts and criticisms; some of them see the forum as "moribund".

On November 20 and 21, the political and business leaders from the 21 Asia-Pacific countries will meet in Santiago (Chile) to discuss further trade liberalisation. Last year's meeting took place in Bangkok (Thailand).

APEC was established in 1989 as a bridge between the two sides of the Pacific Ocean. Its purpose was to create a free trade zone and encourage greater investments in the region by 2020.

Together, the 21 member-countries constitute 47 per cent of world trade. They are: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua-New Guinea, Peru, Philippines, Russia, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, USA and Vietnam.

Trade will be at the centre of the Santiago meeting and crucial for APEC's survival. The creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995 sidelined APEC in world economic discussions. For people like US economist Fred Bergsten (who helped set up the forum), APEC free-trade tools now appeared 'moribund', incapable of liberalising trade.

The problem lies in APEC's failure to check bilateral or sub-regional arrangements—free trade agreements (FTAs) and regional trade agreement (RTAs)—which some members have signed or might sign in the future in accordance with WTO rules. For example, China, Japan, South Korea and India are working towards a single market of 3 billion people. Thailand has been seeking agreements with New Zealand, Japan, Peru and the US. South Korea is seeking a special relationship with Mercosur, South America's free trade zone. For Bergsten such arrangements are creating a "noodle bowl" of overlapping, inconsistent and low-quality agreements.

Approving, containing and monitoring regional arrangements will therefore be a key issue on the discussion table in Santiago. 'Local' trade deals threaten WTO's mandate to implement a global and multilateral market. Hence, APEC is expected to show its willingness to address the issue.

Another key issue on the table in Santiago will be energy. Since the region depends on imports for two-thirds of its needs, finding a solution to record-high oil prices will be a priority. China—the world' second largest oil importer—is likely to put forward a proposal for co-operation on developing new sources and hedging against market fluctuations. In the meantime, from Siberia to the East China Sea, China and Japan are increasingly competing for the same energy supplies.

Market liberalisation and investments are also closely tied to security. Discussions are expected to address issues related to terrorism, military attacks but also threats to food supplies (food poisoning, water contamination, etc.). More specifically, the forum will have to deal with the stand-off between the US and North Korea as well as religious clashes in southern Thailand.

Other topics include infectious diseases like the avian flu and SARS. Corruption, which has started to affect the economies of some of the member countries like the Philippines, will have to be tackled as well. (MA)

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