Pressure on Apec leaders to save trade talks

Momentum gathered on Monday for Pacific Rim leaders to use their annual summit to try to break a deadlock in global trade negotiations by issuing a strongly worded statement that would increase pressure on European countries to cut farm subsidies.

Foreign and trade ministers from the 21 members economies of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum began arriving in South Korea on Monday for two days of talks on trade, security, bird flu and other issues that will set the final agenda for their leaders’ annual summit later this week.

Senior officials have been working on a special statement for the leaders to adopt expressing strong support for the so-called Doha round of World Trade Organisation talks (WTO), which have stalled amid disputes mainly over subsidies protecting European farmers from competition.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said greater concessions by European countries on agriculture are key to making the WTO talks a success, and that it is important for Apec to issue a strong statement on the issue.

“We, from Australia’s perspective, expect the European Union to understand what the rest of the world is saying about market access,” Downer told reporters upon arrival for the Apec meetings. “We expect a better offer from the EU [European Union] on market access than has so far been the case.”

Political influence

Regional business leaders meeting on the sidelines of the official gathering called on the leaders, who include United States President George Bush, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Russian Premier Vladimir Putin, to use their political influence to end the stalemate.

“We urge Apec leaders to exert their collective will in ways that cannot be denied,” the Apec Business Advisory Council said in a letter to South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, the summit’s host.

Apec officials are worried the trade round could collapse if progress is not made at a WTO meeting in Hong Kong next month.

“If this cannot be resolved, nothing will happen in Hong Kong and it will be hard for the WTO to get back on its feet,” said Edcel Custodio, the Philippines’ senior official. “It’s make or break.”

Underscoring the issue’s importance at Apec, South Korea has called a previously unscheduled meeting of trade ministers for Tuesday specifically to discuss the WTO statement, Custodio said.

But it is unclear what influence Apec, which includes seven of the world’s 13 largest economies but has Russia as its only European member, can have on the WTO negotiations.

Almost 40 000 security forces have been deployed in the south-eastern port city of Busan to guard against terrorist attacks and to make sure planned anti-globalisation demonstrations stay far away from summit venues and remain peaceful.

About 30 people protested peacefully on Monday outside Busan’s main train station, waving placards and chanting “We oppose the Apec forum that spreads poverty!”.
A similar demonstration was held in the capital, Seoul.

Statements and declaration

Foreign and trade ministers meet on Tuesday and Wednesday to finalise the wording of statements to be handed to leaders for their summit on Friday and Saturday. A wide variety of bilateral talks will also be held during the week.

The leaders are expected to sign off of a wide-ranging declaration that includes new counterterrorism and anti-corruption proposals, cooperation on combating bird flu, and steps to advance the group’s goal of free trade among members by 2020.

Officials reached agreement on Sunday on a US proposal to test major airports in each Apec economy for vulnerability to attack using shoulder-fired missiles. Agreement was also reached on fighting bird flu, including cooperation to develop a vaccine and greater information sharing.

Experts fear the H5N1 strain of the bird-flu virus sweeping Asia could mutate into a version easily passed between humans, sparking a pandemic that could kill millions. At least 64 people have died in South-East Asia from bird flu after coming into contact with sick birds, and millions of birds have died or been culled.

Apec, whose members include Canada, Australia and several South-East Asian and Latin American nations, represents more than a third of the world’s population, about 60% of the global economy and nearly half of world trade.—Sapa-AP

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