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Pacific Rim nations to end trade barriers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BOGOR, Indonesia -- Leaders of 18 Pacific Rim countries formally committed themselves yesterday to dismantling all trade barriers within the next 25 years, but last-minute objections from two nations showed how fragile their alliance remains.

After a 6-hour meeting at the opulent summer palace of Indonesian President Suharto, the leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum pledged that their industrialized members will drop all barriers by the year 2010 and that developing countries will do so by 2020.

President Clinton, who last year began pushing the group toward such commitments, said the move should broaden trade and investment, bringing a harvest of benefits for all concerned, including Americans.

"This is good news for the nations of our regions, and especially good news for the United States and our workers," said Mr. Clinton, who has made the creation of trade groups a major objective.

The agreement came on the sixth day of a nine-day Asia trip by Mr. Clinton that today brings a state visit with General Suharto. Mr. Clinton has promised to raise the issue of Indonesia's human rights record at the session. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher will meet with Indonesia's Human Rights Commission.

Though yesterday's trade agreement is broad and nonbinding, the countries hope it will create momentum to hasten the trend toward free trade within a group that includes half the world's population and 40 percent of its trade.

Experts called it remarkable that such a diverse group of nations -- which includes the United States and Japan, Brunei, Mexico and China -- could even agree on common goals.

But complications raised by South Korea and Malaysia in this scrupulously scripted event suggested that the compact could rapidly become bogged down in questions about the schedule on which the barriers will come down and about who will qualify for special benefits.

Last weekend, South Korean officials were secretly pushing for a quicker elimination of trade barriers and for assurances that theirs would not be classified as a developed country. General Suharto, host of the event and another key advocate of the program, resolved the issue by putting off -- for now -- which nations fall in which category.

But the questions are likely to resurface quickly in the months ahead as officials begin to develop a map for the nations' movement toward freer trade.

Later yesterday, at a news conference in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, Chinese President Jiang Zemin seemed to stake out his nation's position when he flatly declared, "China's the biggest developing country."

U.S. officials argued that the question was not vital, because the rapid pace of development makes it impossible to know which nations should still be classified as developing in 15 years. So far, it is clear only that the United States, Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand will be considered developed.

More basic objections to the agreement were raised by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad. He joined the declaration only after enumerating in the formal session what an administration official said was a series of reservations about the plan.

Mr. Mahathir, who fears the group may become a tool for U.S. domination in the region, said he was worried about the ability of small countries to compete in such a scheme.

The members of APEC are the United States, Canada, Mexico, Chile, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Papua New Guinea.

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