Sir Hamish urges liberal trade regime for region

FINANCIAL Secretary Sir Hamish Macleod has urged regional governments to exercise the political courage necessary to liberalise trade through the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) forum.

Sir Hamish, speaking at a lunch meeting of the Indian Chamber of Commerce, also said APEC would enable Hong Kong to maintain its place as the business hub of the region.

The forum aims to establish free trade by removing trade and investment barriers and pushing towards greater regional co-operation.

Twelve of the territory's 20 largest trading partners are in APEC and account for about 80 per cent of Hong Kong's trade.

Sir Hamish said: 'Members of APEC are in a position to lead the world in global liberalisation because we have something very important in common: we are all growing, all successful.

'This gives us greater self-confidence than many other economies elsewhere in the world, where unemployment is high and fears of competition and protectionist forces are becoming more and more evident.

'This confidence should allow us to move towards genuine trade and investment liberalisation in a positive, non-discriminatory and open fashion.

'It should allow us to lead the way, to move ahead faster than the rest of the pack, without having to do so in an exclusive, or purely reciprocal way.' Sir Hamish said Hong Kong had shown by example the benefits of a non-interventionist policy which encouraged comparative advantage to rule.

'This requires more than just words - it requires political courage. A courage to admit that competitiveness in particular products can move from company to company, and from country to country. A courage to say 'no' to calls for protection, for subsidy.' He said governments and the private sector had to undergo a 'courageous' change of attitude to eliminate quotas, high tariffs, discrimination and protection of domestic industries.

'The trading system should be allowed to operate without interference, and companies should be given the freedom, or to put it bluntly, should be left with no choice but to adapt to new circumstances, finding either a new niche in their current activities or move into new areas.' Sir Hamish said fears of 'free riders' - countries failing to reciprocate the liberal policies of other - were misplaced.

'Look at Hong Kong. We have always given others a free ride but still, we flourish. I always believe that trade and investment are the most powerful engines behind growth. The more open one is, the more competitive and successful one becomes.'