Business executives came to Chile hoping leaders of 21 Pacific Rim economies would authorize a comprehensive study for a massive free trade zone stretching across the Pacific Ocean.
In the end, leaders at the APEC summit said the idea might be good -- but stopped short of endorsing a formal study, saying concluding the current round of WTO talks is more important.
"The priority has to be the Doha Round, and we didn't want to see anything that would divert attention from that which is the prime priority trade issue," Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin said Sunday at the end of the two-day APEC summit.
Those talks, which were launched by WTO members in Doha, Qatar in 2001, resumed in July after faltering last year amid bickering over agricultural subsidies. They aim at slashing subsidies, tariffs and other barriers to global commerce.
The business leaders, who are members of APEC's business council, floated the idea of the study because of slow progress toward goals set by APEC decade ago in Bogor, Indonesia.
The so-called Bogor goals aim to achieve free trade and investment across the Pacific by the year 2010 for developed countries, and for developing countries by 2020.
The economic benefits would be huge for a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, business leaders say. Stretching from China to Chile, the zone would dwarf all other such regional trade agreements, as APEC's members control nearly half the world's trade.
An accord would also intensify pressure on countries outside APEC to conclude the Doha round, said C. Fred Bergsten, director of the Washington-based Institute for International Economics and a member of the council.
"The European Union and key developing countries like Brazil and India could simply not afford to accept discrimination that an FTAAP would imply for them," Bergsten said in a speech in Santiago.
Bergsten also argues that the proliferation of bilateral and regional free trade agreements among APEC members creates a "noodle bowl" of inconsistent and discriminatory trade accords -- something a Pacific-wide free trade zone would rectify.
Australian Trade Minister Mark Vaile supported the idea, but conceded creating the actual zone would be hard because the APEC member economies are so diverse -- ranging from the US, an economic powerhouse, to severely underdeveloped Papua New Guinea.
"It would be a mini-version of a WTO negotiation," Vaile said.
Still, Vaile said APEC "should pursue it because we believe in greater openness" and that it would "add momentum and energy toward reaching the Bogor goals" as well as WTO talks.
China, a huge influence within APEC because of its booming economy and voracious demand for exports from other member countries, expressed caution about the idea.
"Our reading of the overall sentiment emerging from these discussions is that, while being ambitious in our goal, we need to be guided by a sense of realism and pragmatism," said Wang Xaio Long, the top economic adviser at China's Foreign Ministry.