The Clinton Administration has consistently, though not always gracefully, pushed trade as a national priority. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the Asia-Pacific region, home to the world's fastest-growing economies. President Clinton first spotlighted U.S. strategic interests in this trading area when he was host to the leaders of member nations of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation at its first summit, two years ago in Seattle.
The challenge at this year's annual APEC forum, which begins this week in Osaka, Japan, is to develop a plan for lifting trade barriers among APEC nations by the year 2020. Some of the more mundane technical aspects of facilitating trade, such as harmonization of standards and customs procedures, will be less troublesome.
The more difficult issues involve freeing trade in some specific sectors, such as agriculture. For example, there is a difference of opinion over how quickly to open up trade in farm products, with the United States, Australia and New Zealand opposing Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. The United States is among those nations in the region that want to move toward liberalization at a faster pace than specified in the global trade pact of the World Trade Organization. Others want to forgo an APEC-expedited process and opt instead for the slower WTO plan.
The different approaches reflect, in part, the different economies of the Asia-Pacific nations. The entire region, however, would reap the greatest benefits by moving quickly toward more open markets and free trade. Last year APEC, meeting in Jakarta, closed with the largely symbolic declaration of a free trade zone in the region. This year we look for the meeting to end with some firmer plan of action, commitment or mechanism to liberalize trade among APEC members.
All this trade talk may worry some on this side of the Pacific. Increasing U.S. exports undoubtedly is good for the American economy, but many companies are now taking advantage of new overseas markets by producing their goods there, where labor is cheaper, rather than shipping from the United States.
That is why it is important for the United States to build new high-value industries at home whose goods carry a high premium abroad. That is the Clinton Administration's next challenge: to help position America to take the best advantage of all facets of its aggressive trade policy.