Nusa Dua (Indonesia) (AFP) – The United States on Tuesday intensified its drive to clinch an ambitious Asia-Pacific trade pact by the end of the year, raising the hackles of a newly assertive China at a regional summit in Indonesia.
The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) event, at a five-star resort on the tropical island of Bali, was aimed at breaking down trade barriers among all 21 member economies.
But clashing agendas by the United States and China overshadowed the gathering of leaders, as well as preceding meetings by their trade chiefs.
U.S. President Barack Obama had to pull out of the APEC summit because of the deepening political and financial crisis in Washington, and several leaders in Bali expressed grave concern about the threat of a U.S. debt default.
But, filling in for Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry pressed on with a full-court lobbying press to secure agreement on the “Trans-Pacific Partnership” grouping 12 APEC nations.
Significantly, the TPP excludes China. And Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy, has stayed out.
After the APEC summit finished, Kerry convened a meeting of leaders of the 11 other TPP nations — including Australia, Japan, Malaysia and Mexico — in a bid to beat an against-the-odds deadline set by Obama for a deal by the end of 2013.
In a statement, the United States and its TPP partners “agreed that negotiators should now proceed to resolve all outstanding issues with the objective of completing this year a comprehensive and balanced regional agreement”.
The “next-generation” pact would take “into account the diversity of our levels of development”, but feed into broader pacts that have been mooted, such as an APEC-wide agreement, the statement said.
Obama’s decision not to come to Asia for APEC and the subsequent East Asia summit in Brunei has reinforced sentiment that his high-profile diplomatic, economic and military focus on the region, known as the “pivot”, is in tatters.
Kerry was forced at APEC to repeatedly insist that the Asia-Pacific region remained a top priority, and tried to wrest back the initiative on the trade front.
The United States has championed the TPP as setting “gold standards” to deal with complex changes to the 21st-century economy, such as how to police cloud computing and patents.
But China, and even some developing nations included in the TPP, have expressed concern that it will lay down trade rules mainly benefiting the richest countries and most powerful firms.