Pacific Rim trade ministers have called for “concrete steps” to be taken this year towards establishing a broad free trade area some see as a Chinese effort to respond to a US-led push in the region.
Trade ministers from the 21 Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) countries, including China and the US, said in a statement on Sunday that they had agreed to set up a committee to “kick off and advance the process” of establishing a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific. They also said they had agreed to pursue the pact with “intensified focus” and “by taking concrete steps forward in 2014”.
The call for greater economic integration in the Asia-Pacific region came as Vietnamese authorities sought to bring an end to the series of deadly anti-China protests that followed a move by Beijing to begin drilling for oil in a disputed part of the South China Sea. It also fits into a bigger strategic context, with the US and China both manoeuvring for influence in the region.
The move to revive the quasi-dormant idea of an Asia-Pacific free trade area had been advocated by host China in the lead-up to this weekend’s meeting in the city of Qingdao. It came just ahead of Monday’s meeting in Singapore of ministers involved in the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership talks.
China has long been wary of the 12-country TPP, which has been billed as the economic backbone of President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia and a key component of Washington’s strategic response to a rising China. It has been working to build the credibility of alternatives, including an Apec area and an agreement to turn China’s own trade deal with southeast Asian nations into a broader regional pact.
The TPP itself has been mooted as a potential building block in a broader Asia-Pacific trade area, with some raising the prospect that China could eventually join. The US is also an Apec member and supports the idea of the bigger regional trade area.
But by pushing to inject new momentum into the Apec idea, China is asserting itself at a crucial time in the TPP discussions, which have been bogged down in recent months, and presenting an alternative path towards greater regional integration.
TPP negotiators met in Vietnam last week and reportedly made progress. But several ministers are skipping the Singapore TPP meeting and US officials have played down expectations that a deal could be done in the immediate future.
Separately, Apec officials indicated on Sunday that there had been progress on efforts to update the dated global rules for the trade in high-tech goods. In a statement Apec ministers said that “key participants have committed to find creative ways to move forward” on an update to the 1997 Information Technology Agreement.
Talks in Geneva to update the ITA, which removes tariffs on nominated high-tech goods, broke down last year over China’s efforts to exclude a long list of products. The US and others have cited the ITA negotiations as a key test for China as it seeks to join other talks, including those to reach a new global deal on the $4.6tn annual trade in services.
Mike Froman, the US trade representative, said the US had brought “new ideas” to China in recent days for how to proceed and received support from other Apec members.
“We made progress and narrowed our differences with China, but we are not there yet,” he said in a statement emailed to the Financial Times. But he added that “with intensified work by key participants, an expanded ITA agreement is achievable in the near term.”
另外，APEC上周日表示，更新全球高科技产品贸易过时规则的努力取得了进展。APEC的贸易部长们在声明中表示，在修订1997年《信息技术产品协议》（Information Technology Agreement，简称ITA）一事上，“谈判主要参与方同意将寻找创造性的路径向前推进”。