SINGAPORE: Asia-Pacific economies led by the United States and China opened annual talks today with calls to fight protectionism or risk reversing the region’s “fragile” economic rebound.

Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said “resisting protectionism” was the topmost concern, as foreign and trade ministers from the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group met in advance of a weekend summit here.

“It is a slippery slope and if we are not careful, before we know it, all of us will be in a much more dire situation,” he said before convening the talks with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other Pacific Rim delegates.

Asked if the ministers believed the world’s worst economic crisis since the 1930s was at an end, Yeo told reporters:

“The consensus is that it is by no means over. The upturn that we now have is a respite... the situation is still fragile and

we should address the root causes of the problem.”

APEC was founded in 1989 with the goals of promoting free trade and investment.

Its membership stretches from impoverished Papua

New Guinea to the United States and includes the fast-emerging heavyweight China.

The group is lagging in its ambition to eliminate all barriers to commerce among developed members by next year, and the global crisis has made free trade an even harder sell, most notably in the US Congress.

Clinton said that at this weekend’s summit, US President Barack Obama would “underscore our view that APEC is an essential forum for engagement and common action”.

“We can all be proud that we have not let economic crisis drag us into devastating protectionism,” she told the meeting, according to a State Department transcript.

“Now, it is more important than ever that we move forward on an inclusive trade agenda,” she said.

However, World Bank president Robert Zoellick, who is attending APEC’s 20th anniversary

gathering, told the Foreign Correspondents Association of Singapore that protectionism remained a risk.

“This is still a region that is dependent very much on trade and logistics systems and so when you get higher unemployment, you always have the risk of protectionism as well,” he said.

The US Chamber of Commerce chief Thomas Donohue urged APEC to fight “trade isolationism” and lead the world in “jump-starting” the Doha round of talks on a new global trade deal.

“The United States, in particular, needs to get off the sidelines and embrace an ambitious trade agenda,” he said.

In any case, a study commissioned by the Singapore-

based APEC secretariat

suggests that the impact of APEC membership has been just as beneficial as a formal free trade agreement in terms of driving down business costs.

APEC’s members, which also include Australia, Canada, Japan and Russia, account for about 40 per cent of the world’s population, just over half its gross domestic product and roughly 44 per cent of global trade.