APEC nations have begun considering the sensitive question of whether to expand the 21-member grouping and welcome regional economic heavyweight India, senior officials said on Friday.
Top officials from the 21 member economies of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum broached hot-button issues at a two-week long meeting in Canberra aimed at setting the agenda for this year's summit in Sydney.
The gathering of hundreds of officials is the first of a flurry of meetings scheduled to be held in Australia this year ahead of the September summit that will be attended by leaders including US President George W Bush, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Hu Jintao.
What emerged was that the question of whether to end a 10-year moratorium on new members and to admit some of the 12 economies seeking to join APEC, led by regional superpower India, will become one of the core topics at the summit.
It is already shaping up to be a highly sensitive one, with senior officials attending the meetings that began on Monday saying the issue would be not be thrashed out on the public stage.
"We had a very quiet discussion on that issue, it's not something that made any significant progress; I think it's very much dipping our toe in the water on that issue," Australia's APEC ambassador David Spencer told reporters.
"What I proposed as the chair of the group is that I would carry out individual consultations with senior officials to find out their views because clearly this is a politically sensitive issue and I expect a decision will not be taken until September by our ministers and leaders.
Other countries interested in APEC membership include Pakistan, along with Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos and several South American nations, and a flurry of behind the scenes lobbying is underway, officials said.
The US ambassador to APEC, Michael Michaluk, also refused to be drawn on whether new countries should be allowed to join when the 21 APEC leaders gather in the shadow of Sydney's famed Opera House in eight months time.
"If I could tell you how much representation we've had from some of those other countries, yeah, I would say there's a lot of expression of interest by many, many economies that would like to get in," Michaluk told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Delegates to the Canberra meeting also discussed ways to bolster counter-terrorism efforts among APEC countries, including aviation security and how to restore trade and protect food supplies if there is an attack.