Apec puzzles over membership list
Mon, Nov 16, 2009

SINGAPORE - The Asia-Pacific's top economic club faces intense debate about who else can join its ranks, with India among the nations knocking at the door when a moratorium on new entrants expires next year.

Japan, the 2010 summit host for the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum, is not looking forward to bearing the burden of the membership jostle.

"With the current Apec already a relatively big group, it's a huge headache for us," a senior Japanese foreign ministry official said as the group held its latest summit in Singapore this weekend.

Apec was launched 20 years ago to promote trade and strengthen economic cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region, which now accounts for more than half the world's economic activity and 40 percent of its population.

Members include the mighty economies of the United States, China and Japan, as well as minnows Brunei and Papua New Guinea.

A source from a Latin American Apec member described two competing visions: "The liberals who want to open Apec up because it means more markets and trade, and the conservatives who prefer to consolidate the forum."

At least 11 more countries, mostly from Latin America, are lobbying to join, but their applications must win unanimous approval.

Colombia lobbied intensively for its eventual accession to Apec at last year's meeting in Peru, and Costa Rica and Ecuador are among other would-be members.

Even India, which lies outside the region's Pacific Rim parameter, pushed hard for membership in the 1990s, seeking support from countries including Australia, Japan and Peru.

But it was left disappointed when the group announced a 10-year moratorium on the admission of new members in 1997, a measure that was then extended for another three years.

"India would be interested in an Apec membership. We were kept out in the past mainly due to pressure from China. Now I see no reason why we should not get in," former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh told AFP.

At the same time there are moves towards even more ambitious regional groupings, including Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's push for a future East Asian community akin to the European Union.

Hatoyama has avoided talking about who would join up, but his Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada mentioned 16 countries - the 10 countries of Southeast Asia plus Australia, India, China, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.

The suggestion that the United States would be excluded has aroused concerns among some US and Japanese officials who fear it could jeopardize the Japan-US alliance, the bedrock of post-war security in Asia.

"Japan has relied a bit too much on the United States until now," the newly elected Hatoyama said in October after a summit with China and South Korea. "I would like to map out policies to reach out to Asia, as a country of Asia."

However, at the Singapore Apec summit, Hatoyama said the United States would play "a big role" in any East Asian community.

Apec insiders diverge on how far membership should go.

"For a country like Brazil, it doesn't have a Pacific coast so there is a certain geographical criteria that we have worked on," Apec executive director Michael Tay told AFP.

But he added: "I would not say that Apec is completely rigid... so I will not rule out (accepting) certain kinds of relationships with non-Apec countries or economies."

Apec's members are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam.

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