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Thriving Pacific rim nations organize for economic cooperation

As Western Europe heads toward complete economic integration, the fast-growing nations of the Pacific are taking initial steps toward regional cooperation. Representatives of 15 Pacific Basin nations gathered last week in this Japanese industrial center for the sixth meeting of the Pacific Economic Cooperation Conference (PECC), which many see as the nucleus of a Pacific economic organization.

After spirited arguments, the conference hammered out a joint stance rejecting trade protectionism and calling for collective Pacific action to produce ``substantive progress'' at the December negotiations of GATT, the world trade body.

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They moved toward creating a permanent Pacific economic cooperation structure, despite fears that it would be dominated by Japan and the United States.

The Pacific nations, stretching from Canada and the US to China, are drawn together by a regional economy that is outstripping the rest of the world. ``Nowhere else on earth has there been such economic dynamism sustained over such a long period of time,'' former Japanese premier Yasuhiro Nakasone said in a videotaped address. He spoke of a ``realization of our long-cherished dream of `The Pacific Century.'''

But Pacific unity poses more daunting obstacles than Europe has had to overcome. While Europe shares a common cultural heritage and mostly similar levels of economic development, the Pacific basin offers sweeping diversity. It is divided culturally between East and West, and economically between North and South.

PECC has the virtue of including Southeast Asia's developing countries along with the new entrants into the ranks of the developed world - the NICs or Newly Industrialized Countries. The NICs now include South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, and are being joined by Thailand. Other Southeast Asian nations are not far behind.

The complex interaction of their interests produced often lively exchanges during the three-day meeting. Senior trade negotiators from food exporting nations like the US, Canada, Australia, and Thailand assailed others for protecting their markets. When international trade talks convene in December, said one American, ``we have a slight suspicion in the US that Japan and Korea will be hiding behind European skirts on agriculture. We hope Europe will soon be wearing a bikini and we will see who really is in favor of free trade in agriculture.''

Japanese and Korean delegates said they needed ``more time'' to resolve difficult domestic problems that will result from exposing farmers to competition from cheap imports. ``We would be really dreaming,'' retorted a Japanese trade negotiator, ``to assume we can achieve something concrete by December.'' A Thai delegate chimed in to criticize the US for also practicing protectionism. A Korean protested that they are ``not the same as Japan'' which is rich and fully industrialized already.

The PECC discussion is even more revealing because it includes academic and business representatives along with government officials. During the trade debate, a top official of Japan's big business federation intervened to condemn his government for delaying necessary liberalization of food trade. US businessmen decried congressional moves to restrict foreign investment.

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Since its beginnings in 1980, the PECC has grown to become the most important forum where all Pacific nations can gather to discuss common problems and policies. It is loosely structured, based on national committees in member countries and working through a variety of issue-oriented task forces and full conferences every 18 months.

Increasingly, the Pacific forum is searching for a more permanent form and a way to have greater influence over the policies of their governments. At the meeting, Mr. Nakasone advanced the idea of forming a ``Pacific OECD,'' referring to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development which coordinates economic policies among advanced industrial nations. Others proposed to convene a Pacific summit meeting similar to the Western summits held every year.

Southeast Asian delegates strongly opposed the proposal to convert PECC into a OECD-type group. A Singapore delegate warned it would turn the group into a ``rich men's club.'' And a New Zealand delegate warned, ``It will not bring cooperation if driven by one or two dominant states.''

At the same time, Japan was called on to do more. ``Japan must now behave like a superpower,'' said a representative from Thailand.

``It's a dilemma a rich man is always facing,'' longtime PECC leader, Prof. Seizaburo Sato, said. ``There is great expectation and anxiety both.''

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