Leaders gathered at summit seek regional free trade agreement, with China expressing serious reservations.
Leaders from the Pacific Rim gathered for an annual summit in Hawaii have pledged to work together to ensure that world economic growth remains on track, as the US president announced the broad outlines of a plan that he says could work as the model of a trans-Pacific free trade zone.
“There are still plenty of details to work out, but we are confident that we can do so. So we’ve directed our teams to finalise this agreement in the coming year,” Obama said on Saturday, while seated beside leaders of eight other nations involved in the negotiations toward setting up what has been dubbed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
“It is an ambitious goal, but we are optimistic that we can get it done,” he said.
The proposed trade zone could serve as a model for the region and for other trade pacts, increasing US exports and helping to create jobs at a crucial time for the country’s economy, Obama said.
With Europe struggling to fend off a debt crisis, much of the work done by Obama and other leaders at the summit of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum is aimed at lowering trade barriers and increasing economic cooperation in the region.
“We have an enormous responsibility for supporting the wider world, a responsibility that no one nation could seek to carry alone – it can only be borne if we stand shoulder-to-shoulder,” Najib Razak, the Malaysian Prime Minister, said.
APEC members are hoping that by removing these economic barriers, they’ll be able to stir growth in the Asia-Pacific region, thus offsetting the sluggish growth rates and recessions seen in much of the rest of the world.
In addition to the broader TPP, members are also seeking to forge separate free-trade deals.
Recently, the US was able to finalise long-sought after free trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama – agreements that, if ratified, would bring the total number of countries with free trade agreements with the US to 20.
On Friday, Vietnam and Chile signed a free trade agreement on the sidelines of APEC meetings.
The outline for the regional free trade zone announced by Obama and others involves the elimination of tariffs and other barriers to trade and investment, facilitating trade and other business, harmonising regulatory standards, aiding small-to-medium sized companies and contributing to regional development and poverty relief.
China, the regional economic giant which is slated to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy this decade, is reportedly lukewarm on the pact, however, with officials describing the proposal as “overly ambitious”.
The current TPP membership includes Chile, New Zealand, Brunei and Singapore, with the United States, Australia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Peru in negotiations to join.
Hu Jintao, the Chinese president, said during a speech to business leaders on the sidelines of the summit, that China supported an earlier-proposed APEC-wide free trade zone.
On Friday, the country’s trade minister said Beijing would seriously consider joining the TPP, if it was invited.
Hu also expressed concern about the potential fallout from the debt crisis in Europe.
“There are obvious problems resulting from the sovereign debt crisis, causing volatility in global financial markets amid growing pressure from inflation on emerging markets,” Hu said, calling the instability of the global economic recovery “a great source of uncertainty”.
Meanwhile, US President Obama said on Saturday that China must “play by the rules” when it comes to protectionism and the valuation of its currency.
“For an economy like the United States – where our biggest competitive advantage is our knowledge, our innovation, our patents, our copyrights – for us not to get the kind of protection we need in a large marketplace like China is not acceptable,” he said.