AS a country whose economic future depends on a freer trade environment, Australia is keenly watching the confluence of major economic decisionmaking events in the United States.
Among the events are the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) vote in Congress Nov. 17, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum Nov. 17-19, and the Dec. 15 deadline for the US Congress to approve the results of trade talks by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).
What Australia hopes to gain from all three is a falling-down of trade barriers, a more open regional economy, and smoother sailing for Australian products.
Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke started APEC in 1989 as an open economic dialogue among Asian-Pacific nations. Current Prime Minister Paul Keating took the idea further in April 1992 by suggesting periodic heads-of-governments meetings to give APEC more clout.
President Clinton will host the informal meeting of leaders in Seattle, and leaders of Australia, Brunei, Canada, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, and Thailand are expected to attend.
APEC is the largest regional grouping of nations and it includes some of the fastest-growing economies in the world. They already account for 40 percent of global trade and 50 percent of global output.
The regional forum is seen as a step toward economic integration of the Asia-Pacific countries. The summit is expected to focus on removing impediments to trade and investment; harmonizing customs procedures, standards, and qualifications; establishing a framework to resolve disputes on trade; and recognizing protection for investments in countries.
``What I think APEC portends is half the world's [output] being allowed to move more freely between member states so that by taking away impediments to trade and investment and harmonizing standards we can actually pick up the velocity of trade and investment in this part of the world,'' said Mr. Keating in a press conference last month after a meeting with Indonesian President Suharto.
``This is a big thing,'' says Alan Oxley, managing director of International Trade Strategies in Melbourne, and former Australian Ambassador to GATT. ``It may seem the talk is general, but the focus of political, commercial, and corporate energies in delivering on opportunities that flow from the gathering of leaders in Seattle is likely to be a watershed in the development of the Asia-Pacific economic community.''
A recently released report by Australia's Economic Planning Advisory Council found that streamlining regulations and professional qualifications throughout the Asia-Pacific region could add $400 billion to the region's output.
``For people with vision, the idea of a free-trade arrangement in the Asia-Pacific has got to be the defining idea for the Pacific century,'' says Peter Drysdale, executive director of the Australia-Japan Research Center in Canberra.
While some in Washington like the idea of an Asia-Pacific trading bloc, the Keating government is playing it down. ``The emphasis at this stage is not so much on further trade liberalization.... That remains for some of us a longer-term aspiration,'' said Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans in a Nov. 10 speech. ``But nobody is quite yet ready for APEC to assume that kind of negotiating-forum role.''
While APEC is seen as a long process, Australia is more immediately concerned with what happens with NAFTA and how that decision could impinge upon the successful completion of the GATT talks.
A ``yes'' vote for NAFTA would be seen as a welcome move away from protectionism. A ``no'' vote, on the other hand, would make it difficult for Mr. Clinton to get a fast-track approval of GATT through Congress by the Dec. 15 deadline.
The National Farmers' Federation of Australia, angry at US trade barriers against Australian sugar and beef and incursions into their traditional markets in Asia, says the only solution is for a successful conclusion to GATT. ``We don't want to see people's attention shift away from the GATT system and pursue the idea of a regional trading bloc.''