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NEWS UPDATES Asean Affairs  8 November 2010

APEC Debates Becoming Body That Can Forge Free Trade Agreement

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Pacific Rim economies are debating whether to change the informal Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum so that it can negotiate the creation of a sprawling Pacific-wide free trade zone, Japanese officials said on Monday.

The potentially major change for the 21-member APEC, formed in 1989 as non-binding forum to promote regional trade and investment, would open the possibility of a trade pact encompassing 44 percent of global trade and more than half of the world's gross domestic product.

The idea faces resistance from some member economies that want to strike free trade deals independently, said the Japanese officials, who requested anonymity because of government rules.

Indonesia and the Philippines have said they are cool toward the concept - known as the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific - preferring to think of it as a much longer-term goal.

Experts have also said it is an unrealistic objective given the huge variation among the 21 member economies, which range from tiny Papua New Guinea to China and the United States, the world's two biggest. Given APEC's non-binding nature, some have said any trade treaty would have to take place in a parallel structure.

Still, the idea of an APEC-wide free trade zone, first floated by the United States at the 2006 meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam, has gained momentum as a way to harmonize the proliferation of bilateral and regional free trade pacts within the region and amid frustration with stalled World Trade Organization talks.

The week of meetings in Yokohama, just south of Tokyo, will culminate in a weekend summit attended by President Barack Obama, Chinese President Hu Jintao, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and 18 other leaders.

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