CAIRNS, Australia (AP) - Asia-Pacific trade ministers said Friday they support the current round of World Trade Organization talks but will press ahead with plans to examine the viability of a regional trading bloc that would encompass half the world's economic might.
The WTO's so-called Doha round of negotiations dominated a two-day meeting of trade ministers from the 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum that opened Thursday in the northern Australian city of Cairns.
In its final communique, APEC trade ministers affirmed their support for an ''open, rules-based, multilateral trading system under the World Trade Organization for global economic growth and development.''
However, the group also agreed to examine the feasibility of establishing a sprawling Asia-Pacific trading bloc should the negotiations fail.
''The decision that was made today was to further examine the prospects of a free trade agreement for the Asia-Pacific,'' Australian Trade Minister Warren Truss told reporters in Cairns.
However, the group's first priority was still ''a successful outcome to the Doha round,'' he said.
The U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab, who warned the WTO talks could go into ''hibernation for several years'' if an agreement were not reached this year, refused to say how much longer Washington will remain committed to the negotiations.
''I hate to be in a position of setting deadlines for Doha. I think that's a very ... dangerous undertaking so I'm not going to do that,'' she said.
''For now, the key focus is on the multilateral, and the sooner the better in terms of a breakthrough so that you can get the kind of intensified energy you need to bring a multilateral round to a close,'' she added.
The latest attempt to revive the Doha round failed in Germany last month when the WTO's four biggest powers—the United States, the European Union, Brazil and India—could not break a six-year logjam between rich and poor countries over eliminating—barriers to trade in farm produce and manufactured goods.
Brazil and India criticize Washington for failing to offer deep enough cuts in the billions of dollars of subsidies it pays annually to American farmers, while the EU and U.S. say the two emerging economic powers refuse to offer new market opportunities for manufacturing exports.
The impasse has left in limbo a new world trade pact aimed at adding billions of dollars to the global economy and lifting millions of people out of poverty.
An APEC-wide free trade zone would stretch from the United States to Russia and from Chile to Australia and cover 40 percent of the world's population and 56 percent of its gross domestic product.
While some APEC members have balked at the idea, others argue that it would standardize the plethora of bilateral free-trade deals and serve as a backup if the WTO talks ultimately fail.
The free trade zone idea will likely be discussed at the APEC leaders summit Sept. 8-9 in Sydney.