Analysts, industry executives and government officials in Asia say the annual meeting of Asia-Pacific nations must focus on trade and not be sidetracked by the region's currency and financial turmoil.
''It will be a big challenge to keep their eye on the real ball,'' says Mark Michelson, managing director of APCO Associates Inc. in Hong Kong, a management consultancy.Robert Broadfoot, managing director of Political & Economic Risk Consultancy Ltd. of Hong Kong, said: ''Obviously, the currency and equity market upheavals have an impact on trade and investment, and must be discussed. How the governments deal with those changes will influence how APEC proceeds on its trade goals. If anything, the turmoil should accelerate liberalization.''
APEC - the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum - is staging ministerial meetings this weekend in Vancouver, British Columbia, ahead of the fifth summit of heads of government. Some of the Asian members will show up with a heavy trade agenda.
THAILAND AND TAXES
Thailand, for example, will urge APEC leaders to agree by next July to waive taxes on trade via the Internet, but will also push for a clear political commitment on overcoming recent financial turmoil.
Deputy Prime Minister Supachai Panitchapakdi is expected to use the Vancouver meeting to detail the steps taken to deal with Thailand's financial crisis and its commitment to the International Monetary Find rescue package.
APEC's members are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and the United States. They are agreed on essentially free trade among themselves by 2010 for developed members and 2020 for the rest.
''Every economy has improved its (action plans) and reported how they have implemented undertakings,'' said Leonard Edwards, Canada's assistant deputy minister for trade and economic policy, after a recent meeting in Singapore.
In Vancouver, proposals will be put forward for liberalization in 30 economic sectors, including food, energy, chemicals, and more general items like paper, steel and nonferrous metals, environmental services and technology.
''To show that APEC is determined about liberalization, I think at least six of the proposed sectors should be agreed upon,'' said Surin Pitsuwan, Thailand's foreign minister.
Thailand's new Prime Minister, Chuan Leekpai, is focusing on fertilizer, fisheries and jewelry. Experts expect him to shy away from the U.S. call for liberalization of electronic commerce by July.
Karun Kittisataporn, director-general of the government's business economics department, said electronic commerce is a ''new and complicated sector which developing countries require more time to study.''
The fishing sector may win endorsement for liberalization after a joint proposal by Brunei, Canada, Indonesia, New Zealand and Thailand.
It is being supported the United States, Hong Kong and Malaysia. Resistance seems likely from Japan; the nation sees such moves as threatening government subsidiaries for its fishing industry.
Hong Kong will make a strong pitch on financial markets.
''We do not consider liberalization is the fundamental reason for problems we have seen in the last few months,'' said Denise Yue, secretary for trade and industry.
''We consider liberalization and financial stability are not mutually exclusive, and that has been the experience in Hong Kong over the last decade and a half.''
In merchandise trade, Hong Kong will propose that tariffs on imported toys be eliminated among members, Miss Yue said, adding that this idea has support from a majority of members.
Hong Kong and China are the world's largest producers of toys.
Willy Lin, chairman of the Hong Kong Exporters' Association, suggests grand dreams be scaled back in favor of more attainable intermediate goals, such as easier travel.
Australia, Korea and the Philippines back the idea of an APEC business travel card to assist business people with immigration and customs. The others have yet to move.
China says it will need developed members of the forum to offer concessions on technology transfer in return for trade liberalization.
For the Philippines, industrial liberalization and lower trade barriers are the prime topics.
Jeffrey Koo, chairman of the Chinese National Association of Industry and Commerce, represents Taiwan. The island can't send President Lee Tung-hui, because China would object.
Among Mr. Koo's hopes are for APEC members to work for ''sound currency and financial mechanisms and provide open, transparent information on economic statistics.''
Taiwan has already indicated that, while it backs APEC's goals, it won't immediately support freeing chemical and agricultural products. On intellectual property rights, it ''can render partial support,'' said Chen Jui-lung, director-general of the Board of Foreign Trade.
Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad will press his idea that currency markets should be somehow regulated to avoid speculation as opposed to real investment. He has been vocal in criticism of foreign exchange traders.
'HOPE TO GET SYMPATHY'
''I hope to get some sympathy from members of APEC,'' Mr. Mahathir said on departing for Canada. ''It is important that the more powerful and rich countries should give consideration to the poor members.''
Always touchy is the question of new members. At last year's Manila summit, APEC agreed to freeze the roster until 1999.
Developing members will probably seek accession by Russia, Peru and Vietnam by next year, said Rosario Manalo, Philippine foreign affairs undersecretary.
Southeast Asian members will back Vietnam - already a member of their regional block, the official said.