As world leaders yesterday gathered for their annual talks on building a free trade zone that circles the Pacific, they were also spending time in sideline huddles forging one-on-one agreements.
The APEC forum's free-trade goals may be a fine idea, but it's often speedier to work out bilateral deals, officials say.
"We're not going to shy away from those. Dealing one-on-one, it's much simpler," said Andre Lemay, spokesman for Canada's APEC delegation.
A meeting on APEC sidelines between Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin and his Japanese counterpart Junichiro Koizumi set for this afternoon is expected to take to another level talks that began in January to hammer out a framework for boosting trade and investment between the two nations. Such talks often precede official free trade negotiations.
Year after year, APEC meetings -- including this year's in the South Korean port city of Busan -- have reaffirmed the larger vision for a regional free trade union.
APEC's 21 members, which make up 60 percent of the world's economy, have the goal of setting up a free trade zone by 2010 for industrialized nations, and developing ones by 2020.
Each year at their summit, leaders reaffirm their commitment to the goal and endorse a raft of "action plans" and "peer reviews" monitoring progress toward it. But some analysts and business executives who take part in APEC meetings worry that progress it too slow.
In the meantime, the two-nation free trade agreements, or FTAs, keep on coming.
"FTAs are all the rage. They're in," said Keiichiro Kobayashi, an economics expert at the Research Institute of Economy Trade and Industry in Tokyo.
Kobayashi warned the appeal of multilateral agreements could be dimmed by sprouting two-way accords, although the global economy is likely to benefit more from all-encompassing agreements in the long run. Some nations are even worried about getting left behind if they don't get bilateral arrangements, he said.
China and Chile signed a bilateral free trade accord yesterday, China's first with a Latin American country.
"The fact that we have so many trade agreements doesn't mean that Chile, as any other country, is not so much involved in what is going to happen next month in Hong Kong," Chilean President Ricardo Lagos told Pacific Rim chief executives.
Hopes of advancing the WTO's trade liberalization goals, the so-called Doha round, at a ministerial meeting next month in the Chinese territory have soured because of disputes over agriculture and other issues, which recent talks in Europe have failed to resolve.
South Korea has agreed to strengthen economic cooperation with Peru, and later Panama, this week on the sidelines of APEC.
During his APEC visit, Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo said his nation was finishing negotiating free trade agreements with the US, Thailand, Singapore and Chile, and had started talks with China.
The rush of such deals has prompted Hyun Jae-hyun, head of APEC's Business Advisory Council, composed of business people from each of the 21 member economies, to urge leaders to get serious about global trade discussions and pointed to the spread of bilateral pacts as a reflection of stalled wider talks.
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