Tue, 30 May 2000

APEC meet to discuss trade, e-commerce

By Lara Parpan

SINGAPORE (AFP): Progress in lifting free trade barriers, strengthening market structures and kickstarting electronic commerce initiatives in the region top the agenda for senior Asia-Pacific officials meeting in Brunei this week.

The June 2-3 gathering of officials from the 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in the Brunei capital of Bandar Seri Begawan, immediately precedes a trade ministers' meeting in Darwin, Australia.

APEC is determined to achieve free trade and investment among its members by 2020. The grouping, which makes decisions by consensus, also hopes to present a unified front in pushing for a new round of multilateral trade talks in the World Trade Organization.

Trade relations among Asia-Pacific nations received a boost last week when U.S. lawmakers voted to grant China permanent normal trade relations status (PNTR). China and the United States are members of APEC.

Under PNTR, China's exporters are assured of benefiting on a permanent basis from the same low U.S. tariffs enjoyed by all but a handful of nations.

Other APEC members have welcomed the move saying it will lead to more opportunities for them as China accedes to the World Trade Organization.

Singapore Trade Minister George Yeo said the positive U.S. vote "greatly improves the prospect for peace and prosperity in the Pacific for many years to come."

There had been fears expressed by leaders in the Pacific rim that political will was undermining the quest for global free trade and investment, and some APEC members were taking initiatives to implement free trade agreements on a bilateral basis.

Lim Jock Seng, the Brunei government official chairing this weekend's meeting, said they hoped to forward to the ministers' gathering in Darwin improved commitments by member economies to lower trade and tariff barriers and strengthen their market structures.

The meeting will consider a paper by Australia on the "trade and development experience in APEC" and Japan's proposals for confidence building measures in the World Trade Organization.

Australia will also brief officials on the progress of a blueprint to fully utilize e-commerce in trade by 2010.

At a meeting of APEC telecommunications' ministers in Cancun, Mexico last week, Singapore, backed by some member countries, called for an end to international telecom charging practices for Internet services that place the entire burden of costs between Asia and North America on Asian telecom firms.

The tech-savvy island-state warned that the digital divide between those with access to the Internet and information technology and those without, would widen because of the imbalance, saying the global subsidy of Asian Internet service providers stood at five billion U.S. dollars each year.

Prior to the June 2-3 meeting, the officials will also meet for two days in a more relaxed setting in the oil town of Seria to discuss issues such as the so-called new economy and human resource development, Lim said.

APEC groups Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, United States and Vietnam.