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Pacific Rim leaders vow freer trade to buoy growth

China will ensure steady and robust growth by boosting domestic demand and rebalancing its economy to help counter the obstacles hindering a global recovery, President Hu Jintao pledged Saturday to Asia-Pacific leaders gathered for a regional summit.

Asia remains the brightest spot in the global economy but is facing challenges. Chinese growth slowed to a three-year low of 7.6 percent in the second quarter, and Hu acknowledged that Beijing is struggling to create enough jobs and cope with the adverse impact of the European debt crisis on its own economy.

"The global economy has reached a critical juncture, and we face the arduous task of overcoming major difficulties standing in the way in order to achieve full recovery and ensure steady growth," Hu told business leaders gathered on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in this Russian Far East seaport.

Revitalizing trade and growth is an urgent priority for APEC, whose aim is to dismantle barriers and bottlenecks that slow trade and business while nurturing closer economic ties. Both China and host Russia pledged to do what they can to support those aims.

"The recovery of the global economy is faltering. We can only overcome negative trends by enhancing the volume of trade ... enhancing the flow of capital. It is important to follow the fundamental principles of open markets and free trade," Russian President Vladimir Putin told fellow leaders Saturday as they began their annual "informal retreat."

"The priority goal is to fight protectionism in all its forms," Putin said. "It is important to build bridges not walls."

With President Barack Obama absent from the APEC summit this election season — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is attending in his place — the Russian leader has showcased his country's aspirations to play a more active role in the Pacific Rim region.

Clinton welcomed Russia's recent admittance to the World Trade Organization. America's exports to Russia could double or even triple as the country implements its commitments to open its markets further, while Russia itself could raise its GDP by about 11 percent in the long run, she said, citing World Bank estimates.

"Fostering a balanced and stable economy is a challenge too sweeping and complex for countries to approach in isolation," Clinton said. "If we do this right, globalization can become a race to the top, with rising standards of living and more broadly shared prosperity."

Hu, the Chinese president, acknowledged that his country's own robust growth has slowed as the government curbed bank lending to counter a property market bubble and soaring prices, just as the debt crisis in Europe slammed demand for its exports.

"Economic growth is facing notable downward pressure," Hu said. "Some small and medium-sized companies are having a hard time, and exporters are facing more difficulties."

Hu is due to step down as China's top leader following a Communist Party congress this fall. But he promised to "ensure the continuity and stability" of the country's economic policies.

"We will boost domestic demand and maintain steady and robust growth as well as basic price stability," he said.

China's effort to wean itself from heavy reliance on export-driven growth has helped to rebalance its trade and will generate $10 trillion in demand for imports during the five-year period from 2011-2015, Hu said.

Russia's hosting of the APEC summit highlights a renewed focus on developing its neglected but resource-rich Far East.

Earlier, Putin promised regional business leaders that they can count on Russia, which has long focused mainly on supplying oil and gas to Europe, to be a reliable energy supplier.

Moscow also has ambitious plans to develop its railroads, roads, seaports and airports in the resource-rich but long neglected east of the country to provide a bridge between Asia and Europe, Putin said.

"The first and main thing we're going to do is develop transport infrastructure," he told regional business leaders.

APEC joins economies — both huge and tiny, rich and poor — accounting for about half of world economic activity. Given its status as an organization governed by consensus, its annual summit is not known for major policy breakthroughs.

But a sharp decline in growth of trade in the 21-economy APEC region this year — from 12 percent in December to 4.6 percent in May — underscores the importance of pushing ahead with trade initiatives, the APEC Policy Support Unit, an independent data analysis and research unit, said in a report issued Friday.

During their meetings, the APEC leaders are expected to approve various initiatives, including one that will cut tariffs on environmental-related goods — such as waste-water treatment technologies — to 5 percent by 2015.

They also are expected to endorse measures for ensuring food security, protecting supply chains and beefing up emergency preparedness.

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Associated Press writer Lynn Berry contributed to this report.