Pacific Group Expands by 2 Nations Mexico, Papua New Guinea Gain Membership at Summit

Article excerpt

A SUMMIT meeting of Pacific Rim leaders moved into high gear Thursday, admitting Mexico and Papua New Guinea and promising Chile membership.

Top ministers from 17 countries making up the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group met to lay the groundwork for today's gathering. Then President Bill Clinton, flush with victory on the North American Free Trade Agreement, will press his Asian counterparts to keep up the momentum on sweeping away barriers to trade.

With the NAFTA vote behind him, Clinton is in Seattle with a stronger hand to seek concessions. White House officials had feared that a defeat on NAFTA would have undercut his position in his dealings with Asian and Pacific leaders whose powerhouse economies account for 40 percent of the world's commerce.

Pacific Rim leaders were preparing to deal with a young American president newly pumped up with confidence and dreaming of a trans-Pacific partnership to dwarf even the emerging trade blocs in Europe and the Americas.

"He has a big triumph under his belt, and that will give him a strong position for negotiating here," said one Asian delegate.

Still savoring the House approval of NAFTA, Mexico found new cause for celebration Thursday when U.S. Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher announced that Mexico, along with Papua New Guinea, was being admitted to the group. Member nations have a combined gross national product of $13 trillion.

But Christopher said that following Chile's entry next year, the 4-year-old group would impose a three-year freeze on new members "to allow us to consolidate our efforts." That dashes the immediate hopes of more than a dozen nations, including Russia, India, Pakistan and Peru, that have expressed interest in joining.

The group is a market of 2 billion people with the trans-Pacific flow now 1 1/2 times the volume of trans-Atlantic trade. About 2.5 million U.S. jobs rely on business with Asia.

Christopher opened the meeting of foreign and trade ministers Thursday by proclaiming that no part of the world was more important to the United States than the Pacific Rim.

"We're committed to expanding our ties with Asia," he said, echoing the theme that U.S. officials have sounded repeatedly leading up to the Pacific Rim summit meeting.

He said Wednesday's NAFTA victory "sent a message throughout the region that the United States is committed to trade and global growth."

But that could not compare with Clinton's impassioned victory speech following his administration's biggest moment. "In an economy where competition is global and change is the only constant," Clinton said Wednesday night after the vote, "our only choice is to take this new world head-on."

Buy any evolution of the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation group into a Pacific NAFTA would be years off - and not necessarily welcomed by some Asian states fearful of U.S. bullying, like Malaysia; or with shaky human rights records, like China; or with huge trade surpluses like Japan.

A sample of potential spats to come occurred Wednesday. U.S. leaders repeated their intention to link trading privileges for China to improved human rights, and China immediately signaled that it would not be pushed around by the United States.

Formed in 1989 and so far just a forum for discussing trade, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group links Australia, Brunei, Canada, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, New Zealand, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and the United States - and now Mexico and Papua New Guinea. …