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Vietnam Opens Week-Long Meeting of Asia Pacific Economic Leaders


Vietnam has opened a week-long meeting of officials representing the 21 economies of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group. The meeting culminates with a summit of leaders whose economies account for about half of the world's trade. Issues range from expanding free trade and cutting bureaucracy to cracking down on terrorist financing.

On the agenda are hard issues that leaders need to tackle to keep their economies competitive.

Informal meetings among senior officials of APEC's 21 economies began Sunday with Vietnamese Vice Foreign Minister Le Cong Phung calling on delegates to do more to bring down trade barriers and ensure that poorer nations also benefit from freer trade.

"I hope that, at this meeting, we could reach common agreements and solutions to ensure the success of the whole APEC year 2006," Phung says. "I, therefore, would like to call upon you to show flexibility."

APEC organizers hope the discussions will help revive World Trade Organization negotiations, stalled because of disputes between richer and poorer nations, mainly over agricultural subsidies.

Meetings Sunday also focused on tackling the pirating of copyrighted goods, a practice the United States and others in the group say is costing their manufacturers hundreds-of-billions of dollars a year.

Also to be discussed this week is a plan that the United States supports to set up a vast free trade zone across the Pacific Ocean. The idea has sparked concern among some members, who worry that businesses in poorer countries might not be able to compete with those in richer economies.

The APEC group includes wealthy nations, such as Australia, Canada, Japan and the United States, and rapidly growing economies like China, South Korea and Vietnam. Members stretch across a wide expanse, from Russia to Indonesia, and from Thailand to Peru and Chile.

Vietnam hosts the meeting less than a week after it was admitted to the World Trade Organization.

Vietnam wants to shed the image of poverty and isolation that has largely characterized its post-war history. The summit represents a chance for the communist country to showcase its booming economy and its rising profile as an increasingly competitive trading partner in the region.

APEC Deputy Executive Director Colin Heseltine tells VOA it is fitting that Hanoi is the venue for this year's meeting.

"The fact that Vietnam has just become the 150th member of the WTO really caps off a great year for them," Heseltine says. "And, I think, the Vietnamese themselves would acknowledge that their participation in APEC has been very helpful in their moving toward WTO membership."

Hanoi city officials had the streets of the capital decorated with flowers, and huge billboards welcomed delegates for the gathering at a striking new national convention center. Organizers estimate as many as 10-thousand government officials, business representatives and journalists are descending on the city this week.

The meetings of senior officials in the early part of the week are to finalize the agenda ahead of a gathering of foreign ministers and a summit on Saturday of 21 leaders, including President Bush.

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