In a joint statement on Wednesday, ministers of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum said a successful meeting in Hong Kong next month was critical to the success of the so-called Doha round of trade talks, which they hoped can be completed by the end of 2006.

The statement acknowledged "considerable divergences" and said "a clear roadmap" must be established if the Doha round is to succeed.

The ministers were meeting ahead of the annual summit of APEC leaders on Friday and Saturday in South Korea.

Breaking a deadlock in the WTO over subsidies in the heavily-protected farming sectors of Europe and some other developed countries has become a key focus of the trade talks.

As expected, the ministers did not single out the European Union or any other participant as the main contributor to the WTO stalemate - though some ministers have openly blamed Europe on the sidelines of APEC meetings.
 
Progess crucial

In a draft of a separate statement being prepared on the issue of the WTO, ministers said that "significant progress must be made in Hong Kong".

Rob Portman: APEC can play a
more central role

"There is more at stake here than just another phase of economic liberalisation," says the draft, a copy of which was seen by The Associated Press.

"A successful conclusion of the Doha round is crucial for the future credibility of the WTO and the rules-based multilateral trading system."
 
US Trade Representative Rob Portman said Washington "has not given up hope" for movement at the negotiations.

"We don't believe the world community will let this once-in-a-generation opportunity slip past us," Portman said at a news conference.

"Clearly there are differences of opinion that will be hard to bridge in the next couple of weeks," he said.

"But I do think we can bridge the differences by having APEC play a more central role in the talks."

Anti-corruption measures

In their broader statement, ministers endorsed the importance of anti-corruption measures, the free flow of investment and the simplification of customs procedures among APEC's 21 member economies.

Tackling bird flu will be under 
discussion too

Corruption "is one of the largest barriers to APEC's road to free trade, to increased economic development and to greater prosperity," the statement said.

"Ministers reiterated that terrorism was a serious threat to the security, stability and growth of the APEC region," it said.

The statement said APEC should develop new initiatives to prevent terrorism.

It also noted with concern the threat posed by bird flu to the APEC region as well as the rest of the world.
 
The statement will be handed to APEC leaders for their approval.

Bush tour

Meanwhile, US President George Bush left Japan on Wednesday for South Korea, his second stop on a four-nation Asian tour, a Japanese official said.

He spent one day in the historic Japanese city of Kyoto, where he held talks with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, one of his closest international allies.

Bush met Japan's Prime Minister
Junichiro Koizumi (R)

Bush used his first stop to call on China to grant its people greater freedoms and cited the example of Taiwan, riling Beijing, which considers the island a breakaway province.

In remarks to the foreign and trade ministers' meeting, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said success in global trade talks was vital.

"This achievement could launch the biggest reduction of poverty the world has ever seen - helping hundreds of millions of people to lift themselves out of misery and need," Rice said. "We cannot let this hopeful opportunity pass."

Rice also urged ministers to unite to counter terrorism and bird flu while helping foster greater prosperity by bolstering the rule of law and open trade.

She singled out the threat of shoulder-fired ground-to-air missiles. 

Exporting economies

The United States won agreement earlier from senior officials on a plan to test major airports in APEC member countries for whether they are protected against the devices.

Analysts and even some government officials say APEC, which has Russia as its only member from the European sphere, may lack the firepower to push through a conclusion in the WTO.

Many APEC members are exporting economies that stand to make big gains from greater access to highly protected markets in Europe and elsewhere.

Europe's trade chief Peter Mandelson said recently the EU would make no new offer on agriculture ahead of the 13 – 15 December Hong Kong meeting.

APEC, whose members include seven of the world's 13 largest economies, represents more than a third of the world's population, about 60% of the global economy and nearly half of world trade.