Updated: November 14, 2009 15:41 IST

Obama says US will join Asian free-trade area

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Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong welcomes U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Istana or Presidential Plalace for the start of the APEC Summit in Singapore on Saturday. Photo: AP
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong welcomes U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Istana or Presidential Plalace for the start of the APEC Summit in Singapore on Saturday. Photo: AP

The United States announced on Saturday it will join a trans-Pacific free-trade area, giving a major boost to a proposal to expand it and signalling that Washington will resist protectionism despite the global downturn.

President Barack Obama made the announcement first in Tokyo, and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk cited the decision minutes later in Singapore at a conference of Asia-Pacific business and government leaders.

Washington's decision to participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership _ a free trade agreement among Chile, New Zealand, Singapore and Brunei _ was welcomed with loud applause in Singapore.

The agreement is seen as a starting point for a possible free-trade area spanning the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which was founded 20 years ago to promote greater trade and integration in the region. Its scope since has expanded to encompass a wide range of issues, including climate change, energy and food security, and politics.

``We believe that a high-standard, regional trade agreement under the Trans-Pacific Partnership can help bring home to the American people the jobs and economic prosperity that are, in fact, the promise of a global trading society,'' Kirk told the conference, held on the sidelines of APEC's weeklong annual forum.

The weekend meeting, which includes Chinese President Hu Jintao, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and 18 other leaders, will address new growth strategies in the wake of the global financial meltdown. Obama arrives in Singapore from Tokyo later Saturday and will join the conference Sunday.

The gathering comes amid the most severe economic crisis since the 1930s. While the worst appears over, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, which is leading global growth, the recovery has so far been fragile and risks still remain, leaders said.

Leaders are expected to push for faster progress in World Trade Organization free trade talks and in crafting a global agreement on responding to climate change.

Kirk urged APEC members to work closely with the U.S. in stimulating recovery in a ``balanced'' way.

``This means the United States needs to consume less, and produce and export more, while many of our APEC members with surpluses should seriously consider the need to increase their consumption and imports,'' he said.

He emphasised American willingness to expand economic ties across the Asia-Pacific region, and the key role the U.S. plays in helping to lead global efforts toward freer trade.

``A rising tide lifts all boats,'' he said. ``If we work together to rise above this downturn, we can lift up all our economies and all our peoples.''

President Hu Jintao on Friday cited China's efforts to fire up demand at home, through improved social services, tax cuts and other consumption-friendly policies, to make the world's third-largest economy less reliant on exports.

He also called for better policing of world financial markets to prevent the kind of meltdown triggered by speculation in toxic assets and perilously high levels of debt.

Mexico's president warned the United States against succumbing to protectionism.

``Protectionism is killing North American companies,'' said President Felipe Calderon, whose country is eyeing 3 percent growth in 2010 after a 7.2 percent contraction this year. ``What really kills companies is inefficiency and a lack of competitiveness.''

Mexico's economy is heavily dependent on U.S. trade and investment, and Calderon decried subsidies to banks and manufacturers, such as automaker General Motors Co., and so-called ``buy American'' provisions for projects backed by U.S. economic stimulus spending.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, making his first trip to Singapore, said protectionism is a ``short-term'' solution and stressed that trade is a powerful stimulus for growth.

``Developing countries' access to international markets is a guarantee of their further progressive development,'' he said. ``We have to do everything in our power to refrain from protectionism.''

On Sunday, Obama also is scheduled to hold a summit with 10 leaders from Southeast Asia, including Myanmar. He urged the regime's military leaders Saturday to ``unconditionally release'' all political prisoners, citing detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi by name.

In a lighthearted moment, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd quipped that during the crisis, ``there has been ample opportunity not only for public policy but for prayer.''

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