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Pacific Meeting, NAFTA Keep Free Trade Moving

Next on the administration agenda: finalizing a global trade treaty

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PRESIDENT Clinton comes out of the weekend with two trade touchdowns - and the potential for more.

In Seattle, top leaders from East Asia's fast-growing economies agreed with Mr. Clinton to pursue closer transpacific cooperation. At the same time, the Senate approved the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), following the House of Representatives' lead.

Today, United States and European trade negotiators meet in Washington in an effort to complete by Dec. 15 a worldwide free- trade accord, the long-stalled Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Success here would be a game-winning touchdown.

Although no big breakthroughs came in the Pacific leaders meeting here, experts say, it represents a significant step forward for the president, given the huge potential for increased trade in the region.

``The fact that it [was] held means he has succeeded,'' says Richard Baker, senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu. That the meeting strengthened the impetus for a GATT accord was a welcome bonus.

For the first time, the annual meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum was attended by top leaders, not just foreign and economic ministers - a key sign that Clinton is gaining in his effort to strengthen the four-year-old group.

The motive is simple economics: APEC nations account for half the world's economic output. Liberalizing trade with them could add many US jobs and reduce the $95 billion US trade deficit with its Asian partners. ``This meeting is about the jobs, incomes, and futures of the American people,'' Clinton said.

The next challenge for APEC is transforming the group from primarily a discussion group to a policymaking body. But this is not likely to happen quickly, given some members' worries about too much US influence in East Asia. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, for example, chose not to attend the summit.

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