YOKOHAMA -- Asia-Pacific leaders endorsed a blueprint for future growth Sunday that calls for pushing ahead with free trade agreements and rolling back protectionist measures put in place during the financial crisis.
Wrapping up the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, the leaders of 21 economies put aside differences over currency policies to voice a strong commitment to increasing the trade and investment crucial to the region's growth and resilience.
Leaders representing the U.S., China, Japan, Russia and other regional economies also agreed on the need to reduce trade imbalances and government debt and avoid sharp, potentially disruptive fluctuations in exchange rates.
While many participants remained at odds over currency policies and other issues, they appeared to agree on the vital role freer trade can play in sparking growth.
"We reaffirm our unwavering commitment to achieving free and open trade and investment in the region," the leaders said in a declaration released after the talks ended Sunday.
The leaders also agreed to take "concrete steps toward realizing a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific," but set no timetable. The declaration said this goal should build on regional groupings such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a U.S.-backed free trade agreement that nine APEC members are negotiating.
At APEC, where congeniality usually trumps conflict, leaders of the world's three largest economies pledged Saturday not to backslide into retaliatory trade tactics, after discord over such issues marred the meeting of the Group of 20 major economies in Seoul, South Korea, late last week.
The 21 APEC members, whose economies account for more than half of all world commerce, have agreed to refrain from imposing any fresh barriers to trade and investment, or measures to stimulate exports, until the end of 2013.
"We commit to take steps to roll back trade distorting measures introduced during the crisis," said the declaration titled "Yokohama Vision" after the Japanese port city where the summit was held. The statement acknowledged that some economies may have resorted to emergency tactics to blunt the impact of the global slowdown.
Asia's robust and resilient growth has hinged on trade, and APEC, founded in 1989, has made knitting the region closer together its main objective.
The document also notes a need to reduce trade imbalances and government debt to help ensure stable and sustainable economic growth. In a rare reference to contentious currency issues, it includes a pledge to move toward more "market-determined exchange rate systems."
Washington contends that China's currency, the yuan, is significantly undervalued, giving Chinese exporters an artificial advantage in overseas markets and contributing to the huge U.S. trade deficit. China and some other countries have slammed the U.S. for printing money to help spend itself out of recession, a policy they say is driving the value of their own currencies higher, flooding their markets with excess cash and fueling inflation.
But APEC's focus is mainly on long-term goals, such as working toward a vast region-wide free trade zone that would encompass all its member economies, from giants China and the U.S. to tiny Brunei and Hong Kong.
Forging such a free trade area, an idea first floated by the U.S. in 2006, would happen outside the confines of APEC, which is not a negotiating body. One possibility would be to build on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which currently includes only four small economies -- Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore. The U.S., Australia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Peru are in talks to join them.
Other countries such as Japan are exploring the possibility of joining these trade talks -- although Japanese farmers are vehemently opposed because they worry an influx of cheaper agricultural goods would ruin them.
For the first time, the leaders also approved a growth strategy calling for balanced, sustainable and innovative growth both in the region and within their own borders. Countries should provide better access to credit and social services for women, the poor and other vulnerable groups, it said. They also intend to improve energy security and reduce carbon emissions that contribute to global warming.
Although APEC's focus is mainly economic, it noted the need to combat terrorism and other threats to security and stable growth, such as corruption, food shortages, disease and natural disasters.
APEC also said that 13 of its member economies had made "significant progress" toward a goal set out in 1994, in Bogor, Indonesia, to achieve free and open trade and investment by 2010 for industrialized economies, while conceding more work was needed.
Developing economies in the region were given until 2020 to reach these so-called "Bogor goals." However, eight such members volunteered to be evaluated along with five industrialized ones, the U.S., Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.