As APEC Host, Philippines Touts Free Trade

As host to today's summit of Asia-Pacific leaders, Philippines President Fidel Ramos hopes to present his country as a shining example of free trade.

Back in 1989, when the trade grouping known as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) was born, the Philippines was still struggling to recover from the 1966-1986 Marcos era.

But since 1992, when the former military general won the presidency, he has quickly dismantled tariffs and opened the economy to foreign investment. The economy grew a rapid 7.1 percent in the first half of 1996, the highest since 1988.

"The overall commitment to APEC is to have the fullest possible kind of trade and investment policies in place no later than 2020," Mr. Ramos said in an interview. "We are fairly comfortable in this commitment. We are on track and probably ahead of schedule."

At Manila's initiative, hundreds of private businesspeople met with APEC leaders before the summit. The meeting is being held in the former US naval base at Subic Bay, which has been converted to a productive industrial zone for foreign business.

But the economy still has trouble spots, such as a widening trade deficit. And investors worry that the next leader might not be Ramos, or Ramos-like in liberalizing the economy. A constitutional provision allows only one six-year term for a president.

Ramos counters such worries by saying the Philippines is committed to five D's: deregulation, demonopolization, democracy, decentralization, and devaluation. He also cites 137 major laws passed by Congress during his term that his successor would have a hard time changing.

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