APEC vision: realistic blueprint or idealistic aspiration?

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Asian-Pacific leaders on Sunday endorsed a roadmap aimed at enhancing economic integration in the region and taking steps towards bringing to fruition the aspirational notion of a region-wide free trade zone.

Whilst there remains no doubt that the Asia-pacific region is shouldering the burden of catalyzing a sluggish global economic recovery, with the region now accounting for some 53 percent of the world's gross domestic product and around 44 percent of global trade, some analysts see some inherent problems in APEC's (Asia- Pacific Economic Cooperation) vision of a sprawling free trade zone.

The APEC dream

APEC's goal of establishing free and open trade in the region, comprising its 21-member economies, under a non-binding commitment to maintain open markets and battle protectionism, according to Philip McNeil, an author and expert on East Asian affairs, has prospective benefits, but could present potentially partisan discords in the future, as regional economies are still struggling under the weight of the economic downturn.

"Theoretically APEC's idea of liberalizing trade in the region makes perfect sense, as has been proved by the relative success of divergent economies achieving the Bogor Goals' targets," McNeil told Xinhua following the APEC leaders' joint declaration made this afternoon.

"But the region is still gripped by recession and is inextricably linked to the global economic downturn, despite some countries recovering more rapidly than others. (The word) ' Recovery' means just that -- it's a path towards health and until the global economy is 'healthy,' countries, including those in the Pacific-rim, are going to protect their own interests, first and foremost," he said.

On the one hand, APEC leaders have lauded the potential for growth in the region and congenially agreed that through increased economic integration and cooperation a Free Trade Area of the Asia- Pacific (FTAAP) can be achieved, but on the other hand, the reality of establishing open and transparent trade protocols when some member economies have polar economic and political positions and aspirations, is at best, for the time being, perhaps something of a pipe-dream.

Urging countries to "fight protectionism", for example, is conceivably tantamount to telling a hungry toddler to share its food.

"Let's not pretend that what happens on the other side of the world, (let alone in regions closer to home), doesn't affect Asian economies. Nobody's that naive. We have reemerging sovereign debt issues in the eurozone and the likelihood of contagion in the region; take Ireland and Spain for example, and Japan's own recovery is stammering at best," McNeil said.

"Added to that and in this region especially, there are ongoing diplomatic spats between key APEC players on territorial issues as well as multifarious views on currency; ranging from Japan's intervention to weaken its yen to boost its export-led recovery as domestic demand has all but evaporated, the U.S.'s own quantitative easing measures involving the Fed's pumping of billions (of U.S. dollars) into its own economy and claims that China's currency is undervalued," he said.

Much as APEC member economies try to brush such issues under the carpet, especially following the recent raucous between economic powerhouses at the Group of 20 meeting in Seoul, in favor of appearing amiable and united in their bid to boost trade and investment in the region by pledging to reduce red tape and bureaucracy, such issues remain -- and they remain front and center.

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