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APEC Marks 20 Years, Looks to Future of Regional Trade

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The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum is marking 20 years as the region's leading platform for promoting trade and investment. The group of Pacific Rim economies is looking at the future of the organization and how it can deal with challenges to global trade.

APEC was established in 1989 in Australia to promote free and open trade and investment across the Asia Pacific.

Australia's Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said Tuesday that at the time, trade tariffs ranged from 15 - 20 percent but with APEC's help the average tariff is now closer to five percent.

"Looking back on 20 years this is an organization which has done on any measure very, very well," Smith said. "And, the fact that people continue to attend at the most senior level, that nation states want to get in the door, is I think the best evidence of its effectiveness."

APEC has grown from 12 founding members to 21. Smith says one of the challenges for APEC will be deciding who can join the organization after next year when a freeze on new members is to be lifted.

Smith says Australia supports membership for India, which he says deserves more recognition for its economic achievements.

But it is not clear how much support there is among other APEC members for India joining.

At a series of panels Tuesday on the sidelines of the APEC senior leaders meeting, speakers noted that while the group is focused on trade its gatherings also encourage political dialogue.

World Bank President Robert Zoellick says APEC established an international dialogue with China after government troops killed hundreds of protesters around Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

"After the events of 1989 in China, it was the bringing in of China, Taiwan and Hong Kong in '91 that was the first real international engagement with China and it happened also to encourage Chinese multilateralism, which has now expanded enormously," Zoellick said.

Another regional organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, feared it would be eclipsed.

But while APEC economies now account for more than 40 percent of the world's population and world trade, and more than half of global production, its focus remains on promoting trade while ASEAN embraces all manner of cooperation.

APEC finance and trade ministers will meet this week as well as business leaders in the Pacific Rim.

President Barack Obama will attend the annual summit of APEC leaders on his first trip to Asia as president.