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Opinion: Can Russia deliver anything?

Wednesday 5 Sep 2012 1:43 p.m.

Duncan says not to expect much from the Obama-free APEC being held in former communist Russia for the first time (photo: AAP)

Duncan says not to expect much from the Obama-free APEC being held in former communist Russia for the first time (photo: AAP)

Opinion by Political Editor Duncan Garner

Prime Minister John Key heads to Russia in a few hours for the annual APEC conference - but it's become a free trade stage plagued with problems.

All the action is on the edges of APEC and that's called the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The main or formal agenda will wax lyrical about breaking down barriers and opening up borders to goods and services from other APEC member countries. 

It will preach about doing everything possible to end the world recession by trading.

But so many countries leave the conference and return home keeping in place their protectionist policies. In so many ways APEC has become all talk - and the informal meetings on the sidelines is now where you'll find the action.

That's why the controversial 11 country free trade agreement - known as the TPP - is the only gig in town.

It's about those who are willing to put their money where their mouth is.

But even this agreement is inching along at a glacial speed. Still, it's referred to as the only game in town for good reason- that's because APEC's 21 countries are on different pages when it comes to the meaning of free trade.

So APEC has really become an international meeting room – an international Koru Club - where all the leaders meet. But the main game is the TPP off to the side and even that is proving difficult to negotiate.

Countries continue to join slowly, and that of course slows the beast down even further.

The TPP used to be called the P4 when Jenny Shipley was selling its merits in South America in 1999.

Now 13 years later, 7 more countries have joined, 3 more have hinted they might one day - including Japan - which continues to pull its hair out over the thought of joining an international free trade collective.

Its domestic farmers continue to hold the Government to ransom over free trade. They are inefficient. They are protected and the Japanese Government is walking a tightrope.

The Japanese will talk all this week about free-trade - but that's all they will do - they are years away from putting pen to paper on the TPP.

There was hope the TPP might be signed, sealed and delivered in Hawaii last year - but it was too soon. Now President Obama’s absence from this week's APEC is just another serious setback.

Most countries wait all week for the US President to show up to send a message - but this week they'll be taking their cue from host Vladimir Putin - and all Russia's focus appears to be in Europe rather than the Asia-Pacific region.

Remember also that New Zealand is two years into a bi-lateral free trade negotiation with Russia which was kicked off in Japan two years ago.

But that's hit stormy waters too.

The Russians are worried about how efficient our farmers are and agriculture has become a real sticking point in the negotiations. So hopes that this would be signed at this week's APEC have also been dashed. It won't happen until next year at the earliest.

And then look at the fine print - just what sort of access do our farmers really get?

So APEC without Obama looks like a birthday cake without the candles. Something is missing: momentum.

The TPP is still years away. And one of the crucial questions for NZ is: just what are we giving away?

All our barriers were broken down years ago. So what are we giving away? The critics are loud and clear that we are trading our sovereign law. Are we?

John Key needs to explain more to the public about what this will mean. The negotiations are secret - no one really tells us anything. Should we fear this?

And then there's the Russian FTA. In theory it sounded good to the Russians - but then they saw what it really meant to their farmers.

APEC was once described as a ‘toothless tiger’. That's still more than relevant today.

But those countries that want to do deals, do them, but they do them away from the formal agenda.

In many ways APEC has become the international meeting place for those who want to do one-on-one deals. It's certainly not a perfect collective. 

The 21 countries do not see eye-to-eye. Nor would you expect them to. Yes they have made progress. Yes barriers have come down. And yes there is so much work to do.

But progress on the TPP is agonisingly slow. The Russian FTA with NZ is fraught.

Welcome to the world of free trade agreements. It's complex, but the paid PR agents will tell you progress is being made even if it's hard to spot.

Just don't expect too much this week from the Obama-free APEC being held in former communist Russia for the first time.

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