Redefining APEC for a proper role

By Sushil Seth  / 

Sun, Sep 16, 2007 - Page 8

Starting in the early 1990s, the APEC forum has been in search of a role to remain relevant. The recent Sydney summit was no exception.

It created a lot of buzz with elaborate security arrangements, but not much substance. In other words, it continues to be essentially a talk shop. Its vague attempt at a commitment on slowing down carbon emissions did nothing to bolster its credentials.

Beginning with a great promise to bring together regional economies in a free-trade arrangement, it has largely failed to deliver. Because it has failed to define and broaden its role, it has gained an image of nothing more than a high-profiled jamboree, with visiting leaders dressing themselves in funny shirts and coats designed by the host country.

For residents of Sydney, the event was mostly a costly nuisance, with a large part of the city barricaded to prevent protesters from reaching anywhere near the venue.

The point to make is that the local people didn't see any merit in mounting such an elaborate event with so little to show and without much relevance.

In a larger context, its irrelevance was most marked during the Asian economic crisis of 1997 and 1998 when some of the regional economies went into a free fall and APEC was nowhere to be seen.

So how can APEC be made relevant?

Former Australian prime minister Paul Keating, who claims to have played a role in its formation, argues APEC needs to broaden its horizon to tackle issues of great strategic significance.

In an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, Keating argued that notwithstanding the dangerous nature of the Middle East, "the most seriously dangerous part of the world is North Asia; within the triangle of unsolved tensions between China and Japan and the Korean Peninsula."

As Keating sees it, "If APEC has become a talk shop of debatable output, it is because the leaders who have shaped its agenda since its early and optimistic days have lacked an understanding of what it really is and what it is capable of."

Kevin Rudd, who might soon become the new Australian prime minister in the coming elections, said that "the challenge for Australia in partnership with the US in the future is the rebirth and redirection of APEC."

"Australia and Japan were the joint midwives of the APEC experiment. Over the last decade since the Asia crisis, it has fallen into disuse. It was not used as an effective vehicle for responding to the Asia crisis, and as a result other regional organizations have risen to fill the void -- ASEAN Plus Three, and the East Asia Summit, and they both exclude the US," Rudd said.

What it means is that the US, largely because of its preoccupation with Iraq and the Middle East, is losing the plot in Asia. And China is increasingly stepping in to mold and shape the regional architecture.

The prospect that the US might go isolationist in the wake of its Iraq disaster is worrying Australia so much that Minister of Defense Brenden Nelson recently articulated his country's fears that "If the United States pursued an isolationist posture -- leaving the Middle East under circumstances other than its own choosing ... we risk a change in the US presence and participation in providing security ... in our [Asia-Pacific] region."

In that case, he argued, "We also need to change our posture and our outlook" and build new relationships with China, Japan and India.

Nelson might appear excessively alarmist, but he was not entirely wrong in expressing disquiet about the US' relative lack of interest in the Asia-Pacific region, where China now inspires both alarm and awe.

While new regional organizations and arrangements like East Asia Summit and ASEAN Plus Three -- of which the US is not a member -- might be overtaking APEC, it still remains a valid forum to take on a broader regional role to include economic, political and strategic issues.

But to make it representative and more sensitive to Asian sensibilities and concerns, it would need to include India as a member. By excluding Asia's second-largest country, APEC appears even more irrelevant.

However, no amount of reinventing and re-energizing of APEC can work unless the US reasserts its role in Asia. But this does not mean that the US would necessarily have to confront China.

What it means is that it should let China know that Washington has primary strategic interests in the region and that it is there to stay, with its web of security and strategic linkages with regional countries like Japan, Australia and India, as well as its commitment to defend Taiwan against a Chinese military attack.

But will it be possible for a new potential superpower like China to make a peaceful entry into a new Asian regional order? The experience of both the world wars would suggest otherwise.

APEC could be re-energized and re-defined, however, as the regional organization where conflict of interests could be mediated.

The Sino-US strategic equation is something which is uppermost in the minds of Australia's political and strategic elite.

Rudd writes that "China is modernizing its strategic nuclear arms and it's engaging in general force modernization. The challenge for the US and the region is to engage China in substantive nuclear arms reduction talks."

"Australia and the region should encourage China to sit down with the US to start this process soon," he said.

In this and other matters where China is flexing its muscles, a re-energized APEC could play a useful moderating and mediating role. Whether or not it will work is another matter. But it is worth a try to give peace a chance.

Sushil Seth is a writer based in Australia.