APEC members face hot agenda
PROPOSALS to transform Asia into the most open trading region in the world look set to raise the temperature of the meeting of the 18-strong Asian Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) grouping in Jakarta in November.
At the heart of the recommendations to be presented to leaders of APEC nations is a push for ''open regionalism'' which would remove trade barriers within the region as well as throwing open Asian markets to outsiders.
A paper containing details of the proposed changes will go before Indonesia's President Suharto today. It includes sweeping changes which go well beyond the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
The proposals have been drafted by leading academics, economists and businessmen from each of the APEC member nations who meet as the Eminent Persons Group (EPG). Following the APEC annual meeting in Seattle last year, the group was instructed to devise a strategy for improving trading in Asia.
Few would have expected such radical recommendations.
In addition to calling for the virtual dismantling of tariffs and the freedom for all nations to negotiate unilateral deals with partners inside and outside APEC, the group wants to see the implementation of a voluntary investment code, an urgent study of anti-dumping legislation and a revision of the rules of origin of manufactured products.
Outside the economic agenda, the group is also urging a regional attack on environmental issues, with the richer member states being asked to pick up the lion's share of a clean-up campaign.
Apart from wide-ranging action, the EPG is calling for speed. Its members hope the meetings in Indonesia will come out in favour of the proposals, and set a timetable which will see their proposals starting to be implemented by 2000, and fully in place by 2020.
Those proposals are expected to spark a hot debate when they are tabled in Jakarta on November 10 and 11, and later in Bogor, when foreign and trade ministers attend the annual meeting of the member nations which account for 40 per cent of world trade and 37 per cent of world population.
Hong Kong's representative on the EPG, Victor Fung Kwok-king, admitted yesterday the vision created by the group would almost certainly be contentious but, if accepted, would present the world with one of its best chances of averting a damaging retreat to powerful but insular trading blocs.
'The EPG has an obligation to state views which are quite strong. If we soften everything, we have not achieved our objective. We realise we will be raising the temperature, but we need to put out something which they can shoot at,'' he said.
The main targets will be fair and open trade in the region, with every member state being able to extend free-trade principles also to non-members. Any suggestion that APEC should be converted into an inward-looking trading bloc is firmly rejected by the EPG.
While Malaysia has previously been sceptical of APEC - Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad boycotted the Seattle meeting - and China is expected to raise concerns about the effects of totally sweeping aside tariffs, the advisers will argue that their initiatives will encourage other groups, such as the European Union and the North American Free Trade Agreement, to adopt more liberal trading policies.
The two most powerful members of APEC will be sending their top men, with US President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama of Japan both scheduled to appear.
For Hong Kong, the broad acceptance of the proposals would be a major boost to the economy and its future, said Mr Fung.