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Asian Forum Stresses Global Trade

Anti-terrorism is another concern as the economic summit begins. Hallway chatter centers on the Malaysian leader's recent remarks.

October 21, 2003|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

BANGKOK, Thailand — The annual summit of Asian-Pacific leaders got underway Monday with pledges to restart global trade talks and a new focus on terrorism and security.

The 21 members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum said they would pick up where WTO trade talks left off last month after developing nations walked out of the negotiations.

Early proceedings at the annual meeting were overshadowed by concerns about terrorism, especially since the United States said it would make "economic security" a central topic of discussion.

"APEC is recognizing now ... that security and economics are inextricably linked," U.S. national security advisor Condoleezza Rice told reporters.

In corridor conversation, however, trade issues initially took a back seat to how leaders would respond in person to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who last week made remarks that many regarded as anti-Semitic.

During a conference of Islamic leaders Thursday, Mahathir argued that Muslims could learn lessons from the Jewish people about how to succeed in the world by using conciliation instead of violence. But in the course of his speech, he made remarks some called offensive.

"The Europeans killed 6 million Jews out of 12 million. But today Jews rule this world by proxy," the 78-year-old leader reportedly said. "They get others to fight and die for them."

President Bush took Mahathir aside when they came face to face during meetings Monday, telling him that such words were "hate-filled" and "wrong and divisive," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

"I do not think that the comments that Prime Minister Mahathir made are emblematic of the Muslim world," Rice said. "Everybody thinks that the comments were hateful. They were outrageous."

The top item on the official agenda was trade, especially the question of how to proceed after the collapse of World Trade Organization talks in Cancun, Mexico. Some members are concerned that without a comprehensive WTO agreement, trade will be organized by a hodgepodge of bilateral agreements.

That fear was heightened by a U.S. announcement Sunday that it would work toward a bilateral free-trade agreement with Thailand, which is hosting the summit.

The United States has also recently signed trade pacts with Chile and Singapore and is in negotiations with Australia.

In their first group meeting, the 21 leaders agreed that the draft agreement developed in Cancun should remain on the table as the working framework for the so-called Doha round of trade talks. In addition, they agreed to adopt new transparency standards to combat corruption in the region.

In the course of his meetings, Bush hopes to convince more countries to donate money or troops to the reconstruction of Iraq. Many nations represented at APEC will send delegates to Madrid this week to discuss donations for Iraq.

"The donor conference is about to take place, and we believe that we're going to get very good cooperation and very good support from the Madrid conference," Rice said. Bush's weeklong tour of Asia is designed in part to thank contributing countries. Japan announced a $1.5-billion donation last week, and South Korea has said it would send an unspecified number of troops.

The day ended with an elaborate flotilla of ornate Thai barges, rowed by silk-clad oarsmen and known as the Royal Barge Procession. It was the first time that the ceremony, which represents the descent of gods to Earth and their incarnation into the Thai monarchy, was performed at night.

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