Apec can ‘help counter major economic players’

Iseas conference on South-east Asia in the 21st century
THE Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) forum can be used by Asean and other countries in the region to resolve bilateral problems and reduce the dominance of major economic players, according to a Canadian economist.

Professor Wendy Dobson of the University of Toronto said yesterday that smaller nations in the Asia-Pacific needed a forum to deal with the United States, Japan and China on more equal terms.

Speaking to about 300 participants on the last day of a three-day conference organised by the Institute of South-east Asian Studies on the region’s future, Prof Dobson said that smaller countries could be trampled as a result of the economic battles among the three countries.

“Tensions and conflict will not be confined to the main protagonist. Everyone in the region will be affected,” she said, citing economic spillover effects as an example.

She warned that the US-Japan relationship would become a larger source of conflict and uncertainty before current tensions eased between them.

At the same time, China’s rapid growth was already spilling over into the region through competition and its demand for imports.

Apec could moderate these economic tensions. “That is one of the great advantages of a mechanism like Apec,” she said.

Prof Dobson, who is the director of Toronto University’s Centre for International Business, also noted that the Apec leadership conference in Seattle in November could be used constructively by Asean and other countries to channel the interests of the US in a desired direction.

Apec was formed in 1989 as a loose consultative forum to promote free trade and economic co-operation among Pacific Rimcountries. The 15-member forum groups the six Asean member- states, the US, China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hongkong, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Several participants at the Apec round-table discussion warned that regional trade liberalisation would be a gradual process.

Mr William Bodde, executive director of the Apec Secretariat, believed that it would be a step-by-step approach, adding that the forum would not move in the direction of a free-trade area.

Dr Lee Tsao Yuan, deputy director of the Institute of Policy Studies, said that the existing free-trade arrangements in the region – the Asean Free Trade Area and the North American Free Trade Agreement – would depend on how these evolved.

An arrangement like the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development for Apec in the future was distinctly possible, said Dr Lee, adding that information about investment and business practices could be co-ordinated through such a body.

With economic growth and rising per capita in the region, she said, there would be greater similarity in industrial structures, which would lead to greater intra-industry trade and investment.

But, she added: “We should not expect too much too early, lest disillusionment sets in.”

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