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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 editorial

SEPTEMBER 24, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 38

Does APEC Have Value?
The Auckland achievements were not trade-related. So what?


As another APEC summit is concluded, another round of questions about the grouping's effectiveness begins. For the second year in a row, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum saw its bland agenda upstaged by events on the sidelines. Last year, U.S. Vice President Al Gore insulted APEC's Malaysian hosts by speaking out for reformasi, the rallying cry of the just jailed former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim. This year, it was the tragic events in East Timor that grabbed the attention of the leaders and the media. Also on the fringe of the New Zealand meeting, the U.S. and China began mending the fences that were shattered when NATO bombs fell on Beijing's embassy in Belgrade.

These, of course, are political issues. And APEC is supposed to be about economic ones, mainly trade. But momentum on APEC's goal of forging multilateral trade deals has lagged ever since the 1994 meeting in Indonesia. The Bogor Declaration adopted there boldly targeted the elimination of tariffs by 2010 in developed member economies and 2020 in developing ones. But action plans for achieving those objectives continue to be more histories of past accomplishments than blueprints of new initiatives. Some critics are so frustrated they seem ready to give up. "Let's admit it has been a failure and consider other options," said Hong Kong tycoon Helmut Sohmen, chairman of the Pacific Basin Economic Council.

That would be too easy, and would ignore the value that APEC presents as a place for leaders to gather annually in a relatively informal setting. Where else would they appear wearing identical clothes, and, in the New Zealand case, agree to press noses with the natives? The meeting between China's President Jiang Zemin and his counterpart Bill Clinton at the Manila forum in 1996 set the stage for successful state visits in 1997 and 1998. This year's gathering offered the two leaders neutral ground to move beyond Belgrade and toward renewed discussions of China's entry to the World Trade Organization.

So does that mean APEC should just give up its pretext of being a trade organization? Not at all. In fact, APEC's annual meeting did make some modest progress. The leaders put forward a rough outline of proposals for the next round of WTO talks, beginning in November in Seattle. And they agreed that this millennial round should cover a broad spectrum of sectors (including agriculture) and conclude in three years. Singapore and Auckland talked about a trade agreement, while APEC working groups advanced programs like training for women entrepreneurs and establishing a regional professional skills certification system. The APEC Business Advisory Council and the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council completed important ground-laying research that will give further substance to economic and technological agreements under the APEC umbrella.

Still, APEC must recapture the spirit that powered it during its earlier years and recommit its members to the Bogor targets. Cooperation on technology matters may be one key to building a stronger community. Asian countries must resist the temptation to control e-commerce and high-tech expansion, while the U.S. and other developed members should be sensitive to the cultural and economic concerns of their counterparts. APEC countries can take a lead in developing technology strategy, and use that as a binding force for the future. In the meantime, as long as APEC provides a forum in which important issues are aired - trade-related or not - its existence is not only justified, but invaluable.


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