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Trade, terror dominate start of Pacific Rim talks
( 2003-10-17 14:04) (Agencies)

Trade and terror dominated talks among Pacific Rim foreign ministers in Bangkok on Friday after host Thailand proposed to bring forward by five years a goal to free up trade among their 21 economies.

Finishing the groundwork for an Asia-Pacific summit on Monday and Tuesday that brings together leaders ranging from the world's two largest economies and its most populous nation to tiny Papua New Guinea, the ministers focused on how to crush terror without snuffing out economic growth.

A proposal from Thailand to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum to accelerate a target date of 2020 for free trade was set to galvanize discussion, APEC officials said.

The initiative dovetails with a drive by Thailand and Singapore at a recent meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Indonesia's Bali to tear down trade barriers among the 10 members of that group by 2015.

The attempt to impart new momentum to APEC's founding mission of free trade, coupled with a flurry of negotiations for bilateral market-opening pacts, aims to repair the damage left by the failure of World Trade Organization talks last month in the Mexican resort of Cancun.

"We talked this matter over in the cabinet and the prime minister liked the idea," Thai Commerce Minister Adisai Bodharamik told The Nation newspaper.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has been one of the region's most aggressive proponents of lifting trade barriers and is eager to launch bilateral free-trade talks with the United States during President Bush's visit to Bangkok.

Security will be suffocating during the summit for fear that Bush and other leaders could be the targets of militant Islamic groups. Thousands of police and troops have been mobilized and F-16 fighter jets will scour the skies above Bangkok.


Speaking in California before he left for Japan at the start of a six-nation Asian swing, Bush vowed to speed up bilateral free-trade talks with Australia, Thailand and "other friends."

"Strengthening the multilateral trading system and discussing Cancun with a view to providing renewed impetus to current negotiations is on the agenda of the foreign ministers," said one APEC nation official.

At a summit in the Indonesian city of Bogor in 1994, APEC agreed to lower tariffs to between zero and five percent by 2010 for developed nations and by 2020 for developing members of APEC.

However, many smaller APEC economies might have difficulty meeting the 2015 date. What's more, regional experts say the Bogor goals were more of a guideline than a deadline.

U.S. officials are also using the APEC forum to push the battle against terror. Topping their demands is a proposal to ban the production, shipment and sale of anti-aircraft weapons such as the shoulder-fired missile that narrowly missed an Israeli airliner taking off from Mombasa, Kenya, last year.

Secretary of State Colin Powell will not only call for a ban on the weapons, known as man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), but will also propose setting up an anti-terrorism fund, officials said.

Australia will also propose linking APEC members' immigration databases to form an alert system to track anyone with suspected terror links traveling through the region.

A counter-terrorism plan already approved by senior officials requires nations to take measures to protect cargo containers, oil and gas shipments and travelers and to stem the flow of illicit funds to terror groups without slowing trade.

But less-developed Asian countries have dragged their feet in implementing some of the steps because of the costs involved.

"The ministers will review the economic implications from implementing measures to minimize the effect on trade and travel while providing competitiveness," the APEC official said.

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