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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

SEPTEMBER 24, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 38

Days of Diplomacy
The East Timor crisis showed APEC's worth -- and also its limits
By ALEJANDRO REYES Auckland

    ALSO IN ASIAWEEK
Diary of a Prime Minister
Keeping up with Thailand's Chuan Leekpai

Days of Diplomacy
The East Timor crisis showed APEC's worth -- and also its limits

The Rest of the Meeting
A summary of how the agenda progressed

FEATURES
APEC '99
Asiaweek Senior Correspondent Alejandro Reyes' dispatches from the Auckland conference

The color of the day was black. The leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum arrived at the Auckland Museum Sept. 13 fully attired in New Zealand's famous sporting color. The uniform for Prime Minister Jenny Shipley's 20 guests: black lined marine jackets with a fern (a national symbol) embroidered in white on the front, black long-sleeved polo shirts and black tailored trousers, all in fine merino wool. (Shipley herself was smartly turned out in a black turtleneck and skirt, with a silver fern brooch on her jacket.) Call it the "Awe Black" look, said the hosts. Even the sky was dark with threatening rainclouds.

Black was an ironic choice for this year's day-long APEC leaders' retreat. After all, the tragedy in East Timor, where thousands are reported to have been slaughtered, overshadowed the gathering. It would have looked painfully inappropriate for the APEC chiefs to be photographed linking arms in anything but the color of mourning. That didn't mean that they couldn't smile; many did. In an odd twist, a contentious political issue that had dominated this economic conference may have actually saved APEC from obscurity -- or at least from relegation to the back pages of the region's newspapers.

Last week, Auckland was the center of international diplomacy, amid a feverish flurry of bilateral talks, late-night phone calls, and whispered messages as the world rushed to save East Timor. Conveniently, there was APEC. True, not a forum with a political agenda, but still, 21 members from across the Pacific Rim -- including the U.S. and Indonesia, the key country in the drama. America's involvement, particularly President Bill Clinton's forceful statements prior to his arrival in Auckland and in a speech to CEOs on the city waterfront, proved crucial in finally convincing Jakarta late on Sept. 12 to accept a U.N. peacekeeping force. Though APEC had nothing to do with that, the organization's boosters might well be thankful that, whatever the results of the official economic talks, the Auckland summit would have the look of accomplishment.

The diplomatic drama began to unfold even as APEC officials started their discussions on trade and investment issues on Sept. 7. That day, Shipley announced the decision to convene an East Timor crisis conference Sept. 9. That led to several hours of confusion. (By midday Sept. 8, official invitations had yet to be sent out.) The Americans were still not fully signed on to the idea of a U.N. peacekeeping force. Besides, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was busy in Vietnam fresh from a sensitive mission in West Asia to resolve an impasse between the Israelis and Palestinians. Meanwhile, the ASEAN contingent at APEC (seven Southeast Asian nations are part of the larger grouping) were disturbed at how quickly events were unfolding. Holding a ministerial meeting on a political issue under the APEC umbrella was, needless to say, unusual. And worse, New Zealand was inviting non-APEC member Britain to send Foreign Secretary Robin Cook to represent the E.U.

That Sept. 7 evening, ASEAN officials met in caucus and decided they would not attend the meeting. On the other side, New Zealand Foreign Minister Don McKinnon and his Australian and Canadian colleagues -- Alexander Downer and Lloyd Axworthy -- were busy lobbying their Asian counterparts, particularly the Southeast Asians, to participate. Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas was expected to arrive in Auckland by noon on Sept. 8, but by that morning, word came that he would not show up at all. (Later, his boss, President B.J. Habibie. would also decide not to make an appearance at the summit.) Meanwhile, Albright touched down, but chose first to go shopping and to enjoy a leisurely lunch.

McKinnon and Co. succeeded in averting a Southeast Asian boycott. By afternoon, the ASEAN line was that members would not attend as a group but that each country could decide whether to participate or not. Indonesia made clear it would not join. In the end, however, all APEC members except Taiwan and Hong Kong attended, though not all officially. The New Zealanders insisted that everybody was represented, with only the Malaysians and the Indonesians sending observers. Seven countries, including China and Russia, did not send a minister. The foreign ministers of the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, which currently chairs ASEAN, took places at the table. A Brunei senior official was in the Town Hall chamber, but refused to be introduced or recognized. A Malaysian spokesman at first denied they had even sent an observer, but later confirmed that an official he would not identify was there. Economy Minister Ginandjar Kartasasmita confirmed to Asiaweek that Indonesia sent "an official who took notes."

The protocol quibbles underscored how divisive the decision to hold the special meeting seemingly under the APEC banner had been. "Most of the time, it is political and human rights issues that steal the headlines," said Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, who represented Kuala Lumpur at the leaders' summit after his boss Mahathir Mohamad, APEC's chief skeptic, decided not to attend. "To discuss East Timor formally at APEC would be a departure from tradition. APEC is about trade and economic cooperation. We cannot set such precedents." Abdullah noted that, time and again, the priorities between the organization's developed members and its developing ones were at odds. "Once again, trade issues are being sidelined," complained Malaysian International Trade and Industry Minister Rafidah Aziz. "The APEC proceedings have been diverted to address the extraneous issue of East Timor. It's Kuala Lumpur all over again." Last year, deputizing for an absent Clinton, U.S. Vice President Al Gore deeply offended his Malaysian hosts when he delivered a speech in which he expressed support for pro-reform demonstrators protesting in the streets following the sacking and arrest of deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim. (In an apparent dig at Malaysia, Clinton joked to APEC CEOs in Auckland: "This is a much happier occasion than the last APEC. The uniform for the businesspeople [yachting attire] illustrates that [laughter]. Last year you might have met in straitjackets [laughter].")

But the controversy over East Timor at APEC also highlighted the fault lines within ASEAN itself. Last year, Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan had suggested that the principle of non-interference in each other's affairs be more flexible to allow for some constructive engagement. Philippine President Joseph Estrada ruffled feathers in K.L. when he spoke up in support of "my friend" Anwar. This time, Manila was soft-pedaling East Timor out of consideration for Jakarta's instrumental role in helping to resolve the Muslim insurgency problem in the southern Philippines. Yet Foreign Secretary Domingo Siazon, Surin and Singapore's S. Jayakumar found it hard to turn their backs on the Sept. 9 East Timor meeting in the face of the turmoil in the territory. "ASEAN is in tatters," admitted a senior Thai official. "Now even the Indonesians don't trust us." Still, Jakarta tried to keep putting a positive spin on the situation. "I'm happy that [the three ASEAN foreign ministers] attended," Indonesia's Ginandjar told Asiaweek. "I spoke to each one of them before they went to the meeting. You could say that they spoke for Indonesia."

After the East Timor meeting, officials at the conference expected the focus to shift to APEC's trade agenda. McKinnon even pronounced East Timor beyond the scope of the conference. "The whole issue belongs in New York and Jakarta," he said. But McKinnon didn't count on Clinton. Australian PM John Howard and Shipley had spoken to the U.S. leader on the phone prior to his departure from Washington. Portugal's Prime Minister Antonio Guterres and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan had also weighed in. The lobbying worked. Before leaving the White House for Auckland, Clinton canceled all military contacts with Jakarta and made a strong statement on East Timor, warning that "if Indonesia does not end the violence, it must invite -- it must invite -- the international community to assist in restoring security." He added: "It would be a pity if the Indonesian [economic] recovery were crashed by this. Nobody is going to want to continue to invest there if they are allowing this sort of travesty to go on."

Later, in his speech in Auckland at breakfast with business leaders on Sept. 12, Clinton pumped up the pressure: "It is clear that the Indonesian military has aided and abetted militia violence in East Timor. We are carefully reviewing all our own economic and commercial programs there. The present course of action is imperiling Indonesia's future." Clinton's forceful words were welcomed by East Timorese independence leader José Ramos-Horta who termed the president's statements "remarkable." By midnight Sept. 12, Habibie announced his decision to allow a U.N. force.

The East Timor crisis pushed even the much-ballyhooed U.S.-China summit to the sidelines. No matter -- the meeting between Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin was something of a disappointment. Earlier, U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky and Chinese counterpart Shi Guangsheng had already announced the resumption of negotiations on Beijing's entry into the World Trade Organization. The two ministers failed to narrow the remaining gaps in the talks which had been halted after the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in May. Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan complained that the U.S. still "has to do more concrete deeds to mend the scars of the bombing and provide an explanation of the incident." Jiang and Clinton discussed Taiwan, with Clinton predictably reiterating America's "one-China" policy and Jiang reserving the right to use force against the island if Taiwan made moves to declare independence. Clinton also brought up human-rights issues. Outside APEC venues, noisy pro-Tibet and Taiwan independence protesters dogged Jiang's motorcade. Even Falun Gong practitioners held silent demonstrations and meditation exercises in a city park to call attention to the continued detention of its members by Chinese authorities. Still, Clinton struck the right note when he averred: "We have re-engaged."

For that, and for East Timor, APEC had provided an opportunity. Said Shipley: "Because APEC exists and because a particular crisis existed this year, we were able to allow many leaders and many ministers to discuss this incredibly important issue." Don't count on political matters being put on the official agenda anytime soon. But the diplomacy on display at the Auckland summit may have proved that APEC should stick around.

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