Asia trade pact back by Beijing at 'top of the agenda': Apec official

BEIJING (AFP) - Senior officials from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation region have agreed to launch a "strategic study" on a trade pact backed by Beijing, the forum's top official said Thursday.

The study on the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) concept will last around two years, said Alan Bollard, APEC's executive director.

The deal remains at the "top of the agenda", he said, dismissing suggestions that slow progress on it was a blow to Beijing, but he added: "This is not an opening of negotiations."

The study will have to be approved by ministers and heads of government at the Leaders' Week meeting in Beijing, said Bollard, a former head of New Zealand's central bank.

The notion of a far-reaching trade pact such as FTAAP, first raised in 2006 by APEC leaders, has increasingly been pushed by China.

But it faces competition from a narrower Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) plan championed by Washington, which does not include China.

A separate Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) plan has also been promoted by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Apec had "no tradition of legal negotiations", Bollard said.

"The whole process through the year has been about understanding what FTAAP might mean, how it might get there, how long it might take, and how it might fit in with these other under-negotiation trade agreements," he said.

Some Chinese analysts have viewed Washington's TPP proposal with scepticism, arguing that the plan is intended as a way to thwart FTAAP and thus counter Beijing's growing influence in the region, concerns Washington has dismissed.

Apec wanted to see whether TPP and RCEP were "likely to converge towards something which would be in the direction of an FTAAP", Bollard said. "Or could they send economies off in different directions? APEC would like to see them converging. And this study will help give us directions about whether that's happening or not."

Ministerial meetings at the forum begin on Friday, and the full summit on Monday and Tuesday will see leaders of more than half the world's economy gather in Beijing.

Among the other initiatives to be discussed include a connectivity blueprint and a statement on anti-corruption.