Fri, 11 Feb 2000

APEC still relevant to pursue freedom after WTO failure

JAKARTA (JP): The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) remains a relevant forum to pursue trade and investment liberalization in the region despite its declining prominence as a result of the Asian financial crisis, experts said on Thursday.

Suhadi Mangkusuwondo, professor of economics at the University of Indonesia, and Richard Boucher, the United States' senior official at APEC, agreed that liberalization through APEC would proceed, particularly following the continuing recovery of the crisis-hit economies in Asia.

Suhadi, a former member of APEC's panel of independent experts, said he was confident APEC was on track to achieving its target of trade and investment liberalization for developed member countries by 2010 and 2020 for developing member countries.

"So far, all member countries seem to be keeping their commitment to liberalize their markets," he said. "I have heard no official statement from any member country backtracking on the liberalization."

Even some Southeast Asian countries hardest hit by the crisis have liberalized their markets ahead of their own initial deadlines, he said.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) decided in 1998 -- at the height of the Asian financial crisis -- to accelerate the target date for the realization of its ASEAN Free Trade Area from 2003 to 2001.

"While ASEAN countries were at the worse of the crisis, they decided to move forward. This is a good indication that they are committed to continuing the liberalization," he said.

Echoing Suhadi's sentiments, Boucher said liberalization in APEC would benefit not only the region but also the world.

APEC as a group will continue to play a pivotal role in achieving the program of trade and investment liberalization currently being pursued by the World Trade Organization (WTO), he said.

The role of APEC in trade liberalization is even more vital following the failure of the WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle last November to launch a new round of multilateral trade negotiations, Boucher said.

Because of the WTO failure, he said, APEC should continue with its own style of sectorial liberalization, or liberalizing the markets sector by sector.

He said the APEC leaders summit in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, in November should reaffirm APEC's commitment to accelerating sectorial tariff liberalization.

He said concerted APEC efforts would have more sway in international fora than "go-it-alone" efforts. "With APEC, we can get what we want."

Meanwhile, Suhadi warned that despite the progress made by APEC member countries in liberalizing their markets, businesses still viewed the efforts as "too slow".

Suhadi suggested APEC form an independent surveillance group, consisting of experts from different countries.

The task of the group would be to review and evaluate trade and investment liberalization efforts pursued by each member country and report its findings at the APEC leaders meetings.

Such a surveillance group is especially important because individual, voluntarily action by member countries is the principal means of achieving APEC's goal of trade and investment liberalization, he said.

"The idea for this surveillance group is to impose pressure on member countries to observe their voluntarily liberalization commitments," Suhadi said.

Another method to maintain the speed of liberalization among APEC member countries is the establishment of a clear benchmark for trade and investment liberalization, he said.

With the benchmark, each member country could evaluate how far they have gone in opening their markets. Again, the benchmark would serve as a means of pressure as well as a reference point for member countries to measure their pursuit of liberalization, he said. (rid)