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November 30, 2000

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Day Two: The Missing Agenda
Between East Timor and impending Sino-U.S. talks, the real business of APEC is being pushed aside
By ALEJANDRO REYES Auckland

also:
What happened at the special conference on Timor


September 9, 1999
Web posted at 12:00 p.m. Hong Kong time, 12:00 a.m. EDT


    THE APEC SUMMIT
APEC '99 by the Numbers

Day Seven
Men - and One Woman - in Black
- Monday, Sept. 13, 1999

Day Six
On the Diplomatic Trail With Thailand's Chuan Leekpai
- Sunday, Sept. 12, 1999

Day Five
Days of Diplomacy
- Saturday, Sept. 11, 1999

Day Four
Even before he arrives, Bill Clinton makes his presence felt
- Friday, Sept. 10, 1999

Day Three
East Timor, Trade Talks, Clinton - and What The Leaders Will Wear
- Thursday, Sept. 9, 1999

Day Two: The Missing Agenda
Between East Timor and impending Sino-U.S. talks, the real business of APEC is being pushed aside
- Wednesday, Sept. 8, 1999

Day One
The hosts spend big to put their best foot forward. But will the Timor situation rain on Auckland's parade?
- Tuesday, Sept. 7, 1999

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Taiwan's Economic Affairs Minister Wang Chih-kang was taken aback when the question came. "Would Taipei seek diplomatic recognition from an independent East Timor?" a reporter asked. "What financial resources would the island be prepared to commit to the new state?" Wang, who is representing an economy regarded within APEC as non-sovereign (it was accepted as Chinese Taipei), refused to speculate. "I'll have to ask our foreign minister," he replied.

The exchange took place at a press conference by Taiwan officials at the end of the second day of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum annual meeting in Auckland. That East Timor intruded even into a briefing by Taiwan economic policymakers was an indication of how the Indonesian province has swept APEC's agenda to the sidelines. Last year, Malaysia's domestic political troubles over the sacking and arrest of deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim were the chief distraction. This year, East Timor is more than just a diversion. On Sept. 8, the New Zealand government was busily preparing to host an emergency international ministerial conference on the issue the following day (for an update, see below).

All day, while senior officials of APEC's 21 member economies continued negotiations to hammer out final communiquŽs for their ministers and leaders, the diplomatic flurry in hotels across the city centered on the proposed special forum. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright flew in from Vietnam, while British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook broke off a trip to Japan in favor of Auckland. New Zealand Prime Minister Jenny Shipley worked the phones, talking to U.S. President Bill Clinton and her Australian counterpart John Howard.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas was expected to land in Auckland in the morning, but failed to arrive. Only Economics Minister Ginandjar Kartasasmita turned up, but he pointedly refused to answer questions from reporters about East Timor. Late in the afternoon, news broke that President B.J. Habibie would also be a no-show for the weekend summit. Ginandjar will take his place.

Meanwhile, about 60 pro-East Timor demonstrators marched on the Indonesian delegation's downtown hotel. "APEC, APEC, you can't hide - you're in bed with genocide," they chanted. Among the placard-bearing protesters was city councilor and activist Maire Leadbeater. "I'm in total despair," she said. "What is really needed is action. I can't understand why the New Zealand, Australian, and U.S. governments are not sending an intervention force. It's ridiculous that they are still sitting down to talk and waiting to see if martial law [which Indonesia has imposed on East Timor] works when people are dying. They are evacuating [journalists and U.N. staff], but now is the time when the eyes and ears of the world must be on East Timor."

The idea to hold the Sept. 9 crisis meeting came from Canada and New Zealand, both APEC members. Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy would be chairman. By mid-afternoon of Sept. 8, details of the session's format had yet to be decided. Delegations in Auckland had not even received formal invitations. Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Kobsak Chutikul caused a stir when reports said that he had ruled out the participation of Southeast Asian countries, members of ASEAN. Indonesia, after all, was not expected to attend. And holding the forum would push APEC off the table. "ASEAN has always been saying that East Timor shouldn't overshadow APEC," Kobsak said. "APEC has an agenda of its own. East Timor is diluting the focus of this meeting. To play [the meeting] up as a major event with the impression that somehow APEC is involved in it, we don't think it is appropriate."

The Thai official said, however, that, while ASEAN as a group would not attend, it was up to individual member countries to decide whether to participate or not. "We don't know if it will be helpful to open up another channel and if such a forum would achieve anything practical on the ground. We want something concrete, practical and effective to come out of it, but the key player is Indonesia." Kobsak also questioned the appropriateness of inviting Britain, which is not part of APEC, to the gathering.

The eclipse of APEC's agenda underscores the 10-year-old forum's struggle to assert its relevance. APEC-boosters warn that, should discussion of politics and human rights be allowed on the agenda, the organization would then surely disintegrate. That does not mean that other issues cannot be dealt with on the fringes. But precisely because APEC has still to demonstrate that it is more than an annual talkfest and has provided real benefits to the economies of the Pacific Rim, it is not surprising that the group's agenda has not captured people's imagination and is so easily overshadowed.

This weekend, the summit between Clinton and Chinese leader Jiang Zemin will hog the headlines. With two leaders (Habibie and Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad) not making it to Auckland and all eyes on the troubling events in East Timor, news from the APEC meeting proper will only be pushed further down the back pages. That will only make it harder for APEC to prove its worth.  

Update on the East Timor conference
The Sept. 9 special international conference on East Timor ended just after mid-day in Auckland. New Zealand officials said they were pleased that every APEC member attended, except for Hong Kong and Taiwan (the first because it is not a sovereign country and the second because APEC does not recognize it as such). Despite talk they would not attend, all the Southeast Asian members were there, although not everyone sent its foreign minister. Indonesia was represented by junior officials referred to as "observers." British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook was the only representative from a non-APEC country - he was there to speak for London and the European Union.

According to New Zealand Foreign Minister Don McKinnon, participants expressed "grave concern" over the security situation. Militia forces in the province "continue to carry out violent acts with impunity." Ministers, McKinnon reported, agreed to help the Indonesian government restore peace "through a United Nations presence that would work with Indonesia to restore law and order." Many of the countries were pressing Jakarta to agree to a "very large" international force in East Timor. But Britain's Cook said a deadline or ultimatum was out of the question. "I can't think of any better way . . . to discourage Indonesia from responsing positively than to speculate on the consequences if they don't," he said. So far, Habibie has ruled out asking for international help.


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