VLADIVOSTOK, Russia – Asia-Pacific leaders focused their attention on rising concern over food security on Sunday, as they prepared to wrap up their annual summit with an agreement to slash tariffs on trade in environmental goods and a call to keep markets open even in hard times.
Food security "is one of the most acute problems of our time," Russian President Vladimir Putin said in convening Sunday's second and final "informal retreat" of the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum in this far eastern Russian seaport.
"Without ensuring food security, we cannot achieve our goal of enhancing the quality of life for our people," he said before the closed door session got under way.
The explicit focus on food security by the leaders of the 21-member APEC reflects abiding concern over the potential for food prices to surge to politically volatile levels.
Current prices are high, though they remained flat in August and are below the levels that triggered rioting and unrest in parts of the developing world in 2007-2008. Another food crisis, in 2010-2011, also caused hardships for poorer consumers, especially in countries heavily dependent on food imports.
Russia's decision to ban grain exports two years ago due to shortfalls caused by drought and fires was seen as contributing to a surge in global food prices, though Putin has said there will be no export curbs this year.
Revitalizing growth through more open trade is an urgent priority for the APEC forum, whose aim is to dismantle barriers and bottlenecks that interfere with business, while nurturing closer economic ties.
In acting as host for Russia's first APEC summit, Putin has underscored his government's commitment to opening markets further, especially as a new member of the rules-setting World Trade Organization.
Asia remains the brightest spot in the global economy but is facing challenges, and trade is the solution, Putin told fellow leaders as they began their annual "informal retreat."
"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," Putin said.
"The priority goal is to fight protectionism in all its forms," Putin said. "It is important to build bridges not walls."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is representing the U.S. at the summit in President Barack Obama's absence, welcomed Russia's membership in the WTO, saying that 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, according to World Bank estimates.
Russia's hosting of the APEC summit highlights a renewed focus on developing its neglected but resource-rich Far East, where it plans to develop modern railroads, seaports and airports to help build a bridge between Asia and Europe.
"The main task of our forum is to facilitate freer trade. This task is being fulfilled," Igor Shuvalov, Russian first deputy prime minister responsible for economic issues, told The Associated Press.
At APEC, Russia has discussed with its trading partners projects in forestry and initiatives to open its natural resources sector wider to foreign investment, he said.
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.
On Saturday, Gazprom signed an agreement with a Japanese consortium to move ahead on a 10 million ton liquefied natural gas plant in Vladivostok that could double the Russian gas supplier's capacity and significantly raise its exports to the energy-hungry Asia-Pacific region.
"The production and the construction of a plant for the production of liquefied natural gas furthers the goal of international energy security. It is very important for the development of Russia's far east," Shuvalov said.
APEC can play a role, business leaders attending the conference said, in forging regional networks, especially in energy and transport, though lingering territorial disputes and other legacies of the Cold War era are keeping the region from its full potential: North Korea, in particular, remains relatively isolated from the rest of Asia, its own infrastructure in shambles.
Given APEC's lack of negotiating power, its annual summit is not known for major policy breakthroughs, though its activities affect trade and business accounting for about half of world economic activity. But leaders were expected to end their meetings Sunday by endorsing a plan to cut tariffs on environmental-related goods — such as waste-water treatment technologies — to 5 percent by 2015.
Associated Press writer Lynn Berry contributed to this report.