APEC ministers brainstorm strategy to sustain recovery

SINGAPORE — Asia-Pacific ministers brainstormed Thursday strategies to sustain the global economic recovery amid calls to create a region-wide free trade area and end all restrictions on food trade.

Chile's finance minister Maria Olivia Recart centre

SINGAPORE — Asia-Pacific ministers brainstormed Thursday strategies to sustain the global economic recovery amid calls to create a region-wide free trade area and end all restrictions on food trade.

Finance ministers of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, including Canada, met for breakfast before beginning formal, daylong talks ahead of a summit of their leaders this weekend.

President Barack Obama, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama will be at the summit.

A joint statement due to be released by the finance ministers says the key challenges facing the world economy in the post-crisis period include restoring growth potential, withdrawing stimulus packages and meeting the region’s massive infrastructure needs.

“We are committed to supporting open trade and investment to advance Asia-Pacific and global prosperity and growth … and (we) will actively resist projectionist measures,” said the proposed statement. A draft was obtained by The Associated Press.

The ministers also agreed that APEC members with large external deficits would boost private savings while strengthening exports, and members with large external surpluses would expand domestic sources of growth.

They also committed to strengthen financial supervision and regulations to prevent excess credit growth, blamed for the biggest financial crisis the world has seen since the 1930s.

Among other significant pledges taken by the minister was a commitment to phase out fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption and to fight corruption, money laundering and terrorist financing.

A main focus for the regional dialogue remains an effort to create an Asia-Pacific free trade area, which if created would account for about half the world’s exports and imports.

But the plan is still some years away because of reluctance among some members to sign on to an agreement that would be dominated by the U.S.

Boosting exports is the “best ticket” to creating jobs, ending the recession and bringing massive deficits under control, said Thomas J. Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“Expanding free trade across the Pacific can drive the global economic recovery, create badly needed jobs and advance economic and social progress in developing and developed countries alike,” he told business leaders on the sidelines of the APEC meeting.

APEC was founded 20 years ago to promote greater trade and integration around the Pacific Rim. Its scope has since expanded to encompass a wide range of issues, and ministers Wednesday stressed the need for action on climate change, energy security and ensuring food security for the millions of vulnerable poor in the region.

In a significant breakthrough, APEC government officials have agreed that the leaders should discuss a food security plan that envisages abolishing all trade restrictions on food.

The plan was recommended by the APEC Business Advisory Council, or ABAC, a council of regional business leaders.

ABAC says free trade in food would allow APEC members to use each other’s strengths to produce the best and cheapest food for all.

“What we are trying to achieve is increasing the availability of food,” said John Denton, an ABAC official. “We have finally got to an agreement with officials that this should go on at a very high level dialogue … we are also calling for rules to make leaders end export controls.”

If the plan takes off, Thai rice could be imported in any amount by any APEC member. Currently, many countries including the Philippines, Japan and South Korea restrict rice imports to protect their farmers.

The Pacific Economic Cooperation Council, an APEC-affiliated think-tank , called in a report issued Wednesday for fundamental reforms to shift growth away from a dependence on exports to the U.S.

“U.S. consumers are not likely to drive world demand in the medium term, and the slack will have to be taken up in part by Asian consumption and investment,” Peter Petri, a Brandeis University professor who co-ordinated a regional task force on the economic crisis, said in the report.

Obama, visiting Asia for the first time since he took office in January, will be seeking to counter the perception of declining U.S. power.

The president wants “to send a message that the United States intends to deepen its engagement in this part of the world; that we intend to compete in this part of the world; and that we intend to be a leader in this part of the world,” Jeffrey Bader, a National Security Council official, told reporters from Washington.

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