US Expects APEC Leaders to Agree on New Free-Trade Area

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WASHINGTON, Nov. 13 (AFP) -- US President George W. Bush and other APEC leaders are expected to call for a landmark study on forging an Asia-Pacific-wide free trade agreement, a senior US official said Monday.

They could establish working groups to look into the benefits of the freetrade area among the 21 economies of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, including the United States, Japan, Russia, China and most Southeast Asian economies, the official said ahead of a Hanoi summit this week.

The proposed free-trade area among APEC economies, which account for nearly half of world trade and generate 70 percent of global economic growth, comes amid a deadlock in talks to forge a new global trade accord.

"The idea is to really evaluate whether an APEC-wide free-trade agreement would be a benefit to the members of APEC," the US official said, on condition of anonymity. It would "lay out the game plan for determining how one might come together," he added.

The leaders are expected to focus on "what source of analysis and what source of working groups might be established over the next year to really understand what would need to be accomplished to make a free-trade agreement of the Asia-Pacific a reality and what the benefits would be to APEC members," he said.

Business groups in the region have lobbied for several years for a regional free-trade plan linking both sides of the Pacific. But APEC leaders have sidestepped the controversial idea, including even a feasibility study.

The United States is believed to be spearheading the initiative among member economies to look into the viability of the plan, which could face opposition from China forging its own set of intra-regional free trade plans.

US Trade Representative Susan Schwab said the United States hoped the Asia-Pacific free-trade plan would eventually become a reality.

"We aren't talking about suddenly launching a negotiation for a free-trade area of the Asia-Pacific region. I think over time we would hope to see that evolve and it's a good topic" for discussions within APEC, she said.

Now that Washington wants to explore this issue further, "I think there is real weight behind it," an APEC official told AFP on condition of anonymity. …