The Week Ahead: Asian and Pacific countries talk trade

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The Independent Online
WHILE President Bill Clinton nurses the Nafta free-trade accord through the House of Representatives on Wednesday, foreign ministers of the economically booming Pacific Rim countries meet in Seattle in a US-sponsored meeting to boost American trade with Asia. Heads of state of Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) are to join their ministers from Friday until Sunday in the organisation's first summit meeting. Apec accounts for nearly 40 per cent of world trade and includes the world's fastest growing economies.

But Asian members, notably Japan, South Korea, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, resist Australian proposals that the body tighten itself into an economic community similar to the European Union. Members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) have no wish to be upstaged by a rival regional trade bloc and will fight to keep Apec a loose consultative forum. They are suspicious that a move towards a more structured grouping could undermine their individual sovereignty and could allow the more powerful economies, notably Japan and the US, to dominate the smaller nations.

Malaysia's Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, is boycotting the summit, so opposed is he to perceived US dominance. 'Only one nation has decided to have a summit and everyone is supposed to go along,' he complained. Singapore and Japan welcome Mr Clinton's initiative and are all for fostering American presence in the region.

Mexico and Papua New Guinea, strongly backed by Canada, will probably be brought in as new members.

US influence in the Far East carries some painful memories. Vietnam holds a seminar from today until Thursday in Hanoi into the contamination caused by defoliants used by the US during the Vietnam war, including Agent Orange. Experts from France, Germany, Japan, South Korea and the US will examine the long- term consequences of the 72 million litres of defoliants sprayed upon Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia between 1961 and 1971 to strip away jungle cover used by the Vietnamese.

About half the substances were the dioxin-based Agent Orange, which is blamed for causing lung and liver cancer among US and Vietnamese who came in contact with it. One consequence is that wives of North Vietnamese soldiers who fought in the south frequently suffer miscarriages or produce deformed children.

Australia's Prime Minister, Paul Keating, addresses the nation today to explain his plan to solve the aboriginal land crisis that has been raging for months. He introduces a bill tomorrow or Wednesday recognising aboriginal native title and rejecting the long- held principle that Austrialia was terra nullius at the start of white settlement in 1788.

The last session of Malawi's single-party parliament opens in Zomba tomorrow, during which it will amend the constitution to make way for a multi-party system. This could clear the way for Western creditors, who meet in Paris on Friday, to restore aid suspended more than a year ago in protest against human rights abuses by the regime of President Hastings Kamuzu Banda.

The former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan abandons the rouble today, with its banknotes adorned with Lenin's head, and adopts the 'tenge' at the rate of 500 roubles to the tenge. The move expected to bring Some confusion: 'The government will do everything it can to avoid chaos and panic in connection with the introduction of the new national currency,' the President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, said. Uzbekistan also introduces a transitional currency - the 'sum' - this week.

Spain's two biggest unions strike for 24-hours on Friday in protest at 9,000 job cuts planned by the Seat motor company as a result of car production being stopped at the company's Zona Franca plant. And French trade unions in the state-owned companies strike for a day on Wednesday.

Equatorial Guinea is still expected to hold its first democratic elections on Sunday, despite the opposition parties' decision to boycott the poll.

The pre-trial hearing for Heidi Fleiss, dubbed Hollywood's 'Madame to the Stars', opens in Los Angeles on Thursday and Ms Fleiss's lawyer wants the case against her dismissed. He says the police are operating a policy of sexual discrimination 'by targeting a recognisable, distinct class: female panderers and prostitutes, not male customers'.