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APEC Indonesia regional summit highlights economic and trade issues

World leaders meeting in Bali, Indonesia have spent the first day of the APEC summit discussing regional issues. The absence of the US president has been a talking point.

US President Barack Obama was kept at home by the ongoing budget impasse in Washington, as world leaders met for the two-day Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit on the Indonesia island of Bali.

Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to sympathize with Obama's situation at the start of the summit on Monday: "You can see the president is busy with the domestic situation of the United States," he said. "If I were him I would not have come as well. Any leader of a state would have done the same."

The annual gathering is designed to give regional leaders time to talk trade and business cooperation, as well as discuss country-to-country issues in side meetings.

Japan and China

Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, commented on the country's controversial efforts to upgrade its military: "We are aspiring to become a pro-active contributor to stability and security in the world as a country that observes international norms," Abe said.

His remarks were seen to be a reference to the ongoing dispute over ownership of islands in the East China Sea. The islands, known as Senkaku by Japan and as Diaoyu by China, are tiny and uninhabited but may contain oil deposits and are close to maritime oil and gas fields. Their waters are also rich in fishing stocks.

Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping shook hands during the summit on Monday but had no talks on the dispute, Japanese officials said. Relations between the world's second- and third-largest economies have been troubled for months because of the sovereignty dispute over the islands.

The two countries also remain at odds over their respective conduct during World War Two, which makes Abe's aims to give Japanese troops a broader role at home and abroad, contentious. Japan has long relied on its main ally, the United States, to guarantee its defense.

US-led free trade area

The dozen countries involved in the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) discussed plans for a free trade area they hope will eventually encompass the entire region. US Secretary of State John Kerry said the pact would generate growth and jobs and unleash investment and entrepreneurship.

Despite, the president's absence, Kerry said Asia was high on the agenda: "I want to emphasize that there is nothing that will shake the commitment of the rebalance to Asia that President Obama is leading," Kerry told the business forum. "At a time when all of us seek strong and sustainable growth, TPP is creating a race to the top, not to the bottom. It is reaching for the highest standards of all," Kerry said in his speech.

The 12 countries involved in the TPP talks on the sidelines of the APEC meeting are the US, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, Chile, Canada, Mexico and Peru.

China, which has not been invited to join TPP talks, is pursuing a rival free trade deal involving 16 Asia-Pacific countries.

Interviewed by the Jakarta Post, President Xi Jinping said the "world economy has entered a period of deep readjustment" but China was ready to lead the way to a brighter day as part of "the world's most dynamic and most promising region."

Previewing Tuesday's final summit declaration in Bali, the ministers said that "global growth is too weak, risks remain tilted to the downside, and the economic outlook suggests growth is likely to be slower and less balanced than desired."

jm/kms (AP, AFP)