Officials from 21 Pacific Rim economies, including the U.S., China and Japan, began meetings Sunday that could move toward a bold goal — creating a Pacific-wide free trade zone.
The series of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings this week in Yokohama, just south of Tokyo, will culminate next weekend in a summit bringing together President Barack Obama, Chinese President Hu Jintao, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and 18 other leaders.
According to a draft of APEC's final communique obtained by The Associated Press, the leaders will agree to take "concrete steps toward realization of Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP)" encompassing all 21 members around the Pacific.
But some members, such as Indonesia, are cool to the idea and experts say it may be unrealistic given APEC's diverse membership, which ranges from impoverished Papua New Guinea to behemoths China and the United States. Also, APEC is not a negotiating body, so any trade pact would have to occur in a parallel forum.
The draft sets no timeframe for achieving such a Pacific-wide FTA. But as a building block toward that goal it points to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement that the U.S. and four other nations — Australia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Peru — are negotiating to join. The TPP currently consists of four small economies: Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore.
Japan, worried that it is falling behind regional rival South Korea in forging free trade deals, is intensely debating whether to join the TPP talks. Business leaders have urged Tokyo to do so, but farmers fiercely oppose the move out of fear that a flood of cheap agricultural imports would wipe them out.
While the APEC meetings' agenda will focus on promoting trade and investment, political issues are sure to crop up in meetings between foreign ministers and leaders on the sidelines later this week.
Myanmar's elections on Sunday — the first 20 years — are sure to generate some reaction. Obama, while traveling in India on Sunday, told university students that the vote was "anything but free and fair."
Tensions over territorial disputes are also bubbling between host Japan and two of its big neighbors, China and Russia.
Ties between Tokyo and Beijing are their worst in several years since Japan arrested — and then released — a Chinese fishing boat captain who collided with two Japanese patrol vessels off disputed islands in the East China Sea in September. The leak of a purported video of the collisions on YouTube on Friday could further inflame emotions in both countries. Tokyo has not confirmed whether the video is authentic, but Prime Minister Kan has ordered an investigation.
Beset by disputes with Beijing and Moscow, Kan is hoping for a strong show of unity during his meeting with Obama in Yokohama, where the two will likely reaffirm their countries' security pact, which marks its 50th anniversary this year and obliges the U.S. to respond to attacks on Japanese soil.
However, there are no firm plans for Kan to meet with China's Hu or Russian President Dimitry Medvedev.
This year's APEC meetings will be overshadowed some by the Group of 20 summit in Seoul, South Korea, on Thursday and Friday. That meeting, which brings together major rich and emerging economies, including Brazil, India and Saudi Arabia, is set to tackle global imbalances and sustaining global growth that hasn't fully recovered from the 2008 financial crisis.
About half the G-20 leaders will also attend the APEC summit.
APEC members also aim to outline an overarching economic growth strategy that seeks to be balanced and compatible with efforts to protect the environment.
Also, developed member economies the U.S., Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand will be measured in their progress toward achieving free and open trade and investment by 2010 — this year — as set by APEC leaders in Bogor, Indonesia, in 1994.
Under the so-called Bogor Goals, developing economies had until 2020 to meet that goal, but eight other members, including South Korea and China, have asked that they be evaluated as well.
APEC, which started in 1989, represents 44 percent of global trade and 53 percent of global gross domestic product.