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Singapore Calls for Asia Pacific Free Trade Zone

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Singapore has called for the creation of an ambitious Asia-Pacific free trade zone that it says would comprise nearly half of all global trade. The call, by Singapore's foreign minister, comes ahead of the 20th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

APEC's 20th anniversary comes at a crucial time as its members emerge from the worst financial crisis in decades. Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong says the time is right for serious discussions on reducing tariffs and boosting trade in the region.

"It takes place at a pivotal moment, when the world economy is emerging from the global financial crisis, when the situation has stabilized, yet the economic outlook remains uncertain," he says, "when much still needs to be done to sustain the economic recovery."

Total exports by APEC's 21 members have grown faster than the rest of the world, from $1.2 trillion in 1989 to more than $6 trillion in 2007.

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George Yeo is Singapore's foreign minister. "What we really want is a free trade area of the Asia-Pacific," he said.

The proposed free trade zone would be marginally larger than its European and North American counterparts.

But Yeo acknowledges agreement among such a diverse group will be difficult. "But let's keep pushing in that direction through bilateral and regional free trade agreements, creating a positive, competitive dynamic," he states.

The group has heard similar proposals before but this time, the world spotlight will be on APEC. Eduardo Pedrosa represents the Pacific Economic Council.

"One of the main criticisms of APEC is it was unable to do anything substantial for the economies affected by the Asian financial crisis," Pedrosa says, "So what's happening today with the global financial crisis is going to be a real test of whether APEC can deliver something meaningful to the citizens of the region."

The proposed trading zone is high on the agenda for the Singapore summit, which takes place on November 14 and 15.

Proponents say it would bring together more than 40 overlapping or duplicate agreements under one roof - and bring greater stability and prosperity for the region.