Sunday, November 15, 2009

Obama under fire on trade as Asia-Pacific leaders meet

US President Barack Obama, left, shakes hands with Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong before the gala dinner for APEC leaders in Singapore. Photo: AP

US President Barack Obama has come under fire from Asia-Pacific leaders for backsliding on free trade at a regional summit devoted to driving the world economy out of crisis.

"President Obama is facing severe political constraints that run counter to free trade," Mexican President Felipe Calderon said, complaining about US foot-dragging on full implementation of the NAFTA pact for North America.

"The cruel paradox is that within a global economy, what really kills companies is inefficiency and lack of competition. Therefore protectionism is killing North American companies," he said in a speech in Singapore on Saturday.

"So I think this has to do with the fact that the US government is under strong political pressure that really is not being counteracted from the political perspective" of the Obama administration.

The US Congress has turned even more sour on free trade after the worst economic crisis since World War II.

One landmark pact with South Korea is languishing and critics say the White House has done little to revive it.

The US economy is picking up but unemployment has breached 10 per cent and economic leaders, including the heads of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, warned in Singapore that protectionism could choke off recovery.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said controversial tariffs enacted by his government to shore up ailing industries were temporary and urged his regional colleagues to "do anything we can to refrain from protectionism in any sphere".

The warnings came as a two-day summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) forum began on Saturday.

Obama arrived later in Singapore to join the 20 other leaders, after a visit to Tokyo.

In a speech in the Japanese capital, Obama reaffirmed a US commitment to finally concluding the World Trade Organisation's Doha round of talks - a long-running bid to tear down barriers to global commerce.

And he said the United States was interested in an obscure trade pact that leaders say could become the nucleus for a massive trans-Pacific free-trade zone covering 2.6 billion people.

"The United States will also be engaging with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) countries with the goal of shaping a regional agreement that will have broad-based membership and the high standards worthy of a 21st century trade agreement," he said.

The TPP now involves Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore.

Australia, Peru and Vietnam have expressed interest in joining, and Obama's remarks were the clearest so far about Washington's plans.

"The US announcement is a significant statement of its intent to the Asia-Pacific region," Australian Trade Minister Simon Crean said.

"Importantly, it provides the critical mass essential for this initiative to go forward."

Obama meanwhile called for "balanced and sustained" growth around the world in the post-crisis phase, pressing Asian exporters including China to wean themselves off US consumers and build up their own demand.

His comments underlined a central theme of the APEC summit - that the world economy must be rebalanced so that voracious US consumerism is no longer the sole cylinder firing global growth.

Officials said the realignment was a main item of summit discussion prior to an evening dinner, when the leaders continued an APEC tradition by donning specially designed shirts reflecting the host nation's culture.



Post a Comment