Trade ministers and officials from around the Pacific are gathering in the United States this week for talks intended to increase trade, economic growth and employment in their countries.
Ministers with the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum gather Thursday to work on a couple of agreements to cut tariffs as well as legal, regulatory and bureaucratic obstacles to trade.
APEC by the Numbers
One of those agreements is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which involves the United States and eight other nations including Peru, Vietnam, and Malaysia. The TPP has been the subject of several rounds of negotiations. APEC expert Fred Bergsten says the wide economic gaps between the countries mean talks are likely to take quite a while.
“This is a negotiation between high-income advanced countries and still low-income developing countries. In the Trans-Pacific Partnership for example, you have the United States and Vietnam. That’s a sharp divergence in levels of economic development and sophistication and economic systems, which makes it challenging,” said Bergsten.
This meeting is part of series leading up to the annual APEC leaders’ summit in Hawaii next November. Officials in charge of trade and small businesses in the 21 APEC members will wrap up their meeting in Big Sky, Montana, on Saturday.
Many APEC members regard the TPP as a step toward the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, which could involve all 21 members. Bergsten, the director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, says there has been good progress in cutting tariffs in many parts of APEC. But he says it is harder to negotiate on more subtle, and sometimes informal, barriers to trade. Nevertheless, Bergsten expects officials from the nine TPP nations to craft at least the outline of an agreement before the APEC summit later this year.
Free-trade advocates say cutting tariffs lowers costs for consumers and creates markets for producers. But free trade has critics. For instance, South Korea farmers have opposed trade agreements out of concern that foreign competition would hurt their income. In the United States, many workers blame imports for the decline in the number of U.S. manufacturing jobs.
The need to create jobs is a key reason APEC is focusing on small businesses this year. Experts at the U.S. Small Business Administration say most new jobs come from small businesses and raising their ability to export will help them grow.
There are 28 million small businesses in the United States but only about a quarter of a million of them export. Most that do export send their products to just one foreign nation.
At the Small Business Administration, Senior International Trade Specialist Richard Ginzberg says 97 percent of U.S. exporters are small businesses. He says businesses that do not export are ignoring the 96 percent of the world's customers who live outside the United States. Ginzberg explains that some companies need reassurance about tapping overseas markets.
"The biggest obstacle we have found in talking to so many small businesses is the fear factor of doing business globally versus doing business domestically ... small businesses have strong perceptions about the high rate of risk, the danger of not getting paid and perhaps even loss of their goods," said Ginzzberg.
Ginzberg says small companies often lack the resources to cope with the regulatory issues regarding exports, such as financing and taxes. But he says 20 U.S. government agencies are working to help businesses cope with rules that vary widely from nation to nation.
That work is part of a new initiative to double U.S. exports and create two million jobs. U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk says the Asia-Pacific region is critical to that effort because it will be responsible for half the world's economic growth over the next several years.
"This is an incredibly dynamic region, incredible growth trends. 40 percent of the world's population, 54 percent of the world's GDP, but we account for 44 percent of the world's trade," said Kirk.
U.S. Senator Max Baucus wants to bring more of that trade to his home state of Montana. So he persuaded officials to stage this APEC trade meeting in the ski resort town of Big Sky.
Baucus says thousands of diplomats, businessmen, and journalists will have a good time in Big Sky, which will help his state's ranchers, miners, and other businesses build the relationships needed to make more sales.