APEC Leaders Have Cautionary Words for President-Elect Obama

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 24, 2008

LIMA, Peru, Nov. 23 -- George W. Bush was the U.S. president at an economic summit here this weekend, but many foreign leaders were focused on President-elect Barack Obama instead.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper cautioned Obama against plans to rework the North American Free Trade Agreement, saying it would worsen a global financial crisis. Chinese President Hu Jintao said he hopes Obama will recognize the importance of U.S.-China ties while treading carefully on the thorny issue of Taiwan.

And Mexican President Felipe Calderón, in an impassioned speech to delegates at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum Saturday, warned Obama that any tightening of trade restrictions would send a flood of illegal immigrants into the United States.

"The next U.S. administration must assume leadership in a very firm manner -- not just for Americans but for the whole world," Calderón said.

The stern words for Obama came during an annual APEC gathering dominated by fears over the ongoing financial crisis and underscored the difficult balance that Obama must strike if he intends to forge a new economic path for the United States.

Bush returned to Washington from Peru on Sunday after securing an agreement from the 21-member group to keep trade barriers low along the Pacific Rim as leaders fashion responses to the global financial storm. The APEC statement closely mirrors a pledge signed in Washington on Nov. 15 by leaders from the Group of 20 economic powers, nine of which were represented in Lima.

The leaders said Sunday that they could overcome the financial crisis, which has the world on the edge of recession, within 18 months. But they provided few details on how they plan to do that.

Many delegates to the APEC summit said there was little point in considering additional actions until Obama gets involved. The president-elect did not send any representatives to APEC, although transition officials said Obama's team was briefed by the Bush administration before the summit.

"There's one president at a time, and we intend to respect that," said Brooke Anderson, an Obama spokeswoman.

Obama unveiled plans Saturday to create or preserve 2.5 million jobs in the United States, and is expected to name two experienced policymakers, Timothy F. Geithner and Lawrence H. Summers, to lead his efforts to address the economic crisis. Yet many of the leaders who met in Peru were clearly uneasy with Obama's campaign pledge to reform NAFTA and his opposition to several pending free-trade agreements. As a senator, Obama supported an earlier trade pact with Peru.

The nations along the Pacific Rim include powerhouses such as China, Japan and South Korea, where rapid growth is heavily dependent on open trade with the United States and other Western economies. Many of those countries have stiff tariffs and other limits in place that elicit howls from U.S. manufacturers.

Bush himself offered an implicit criticism of Obama's potential economic policies, railing against congressional opposition to the proposed trade pacts with Colombia, Panama and South Korea and warning nations against turning inward in the face of the financial meltdown. He also boasted about his record, including trade pacts with 11 nations, in a speech to business leaders here.

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