Fri, Oct 17, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Critics question usefulness of APEC summit

JUST TALK Despite the weight of those attending next week's meeting of national leaders, few are expecting anything more than photo opportunities to come of it


World leaders will be swathed in the finest of silks. The streets have been cleared of unsightly vendors and beggars. Thousands of soldiers and police, along with warplanes and missiles, are at the ready to keep terrorists at bay.

The frenzied, grandiose and costly preparations for the APEC summit are worthy of a historic event. But critics say the annual gathering of 21 Pacific Rim leaders doesn't amount to much more than a talk-fest and a colorful group photo.

"At the end of the day, you won't get anything beyond broad remarks. There won't be any concrete plans," Joseph Tan, an economist for the Standard Chartered Bank, says of the summit that will include US President George W. Bush, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Indeed nay-sayers can think of only two accomplishments since the bloc's formation 14 years ago. One is a non-binding goal of free trade and investment for industrialized countries by 2010, and the group's developing countries by 2020. The second binds all leaders to wear the same outfit for a group photo, this year's being fashioned of specially woven silk.

Founded to promote economic integration and sustain economic growth, APEC spans the Pacific like a colossus, at least on paper. Its members -- from China to Chile -- account for more than 2.5 billion people and about half the world's GDP and trade.

"Maybe APEC is too large, too diverse. It's different from the European Community which can deepen cooperation because the countries have a real historical identity," says Thai political scientist Prapas Thepchatri. "I'm afraid APEC has no identity, no vision to move forward to become what? An Asian-Pacific community? That's maybe too abstract."

Even the executive director of the APEC Secretariat, Piamsak Milimtachinda, expresses concerns.

"APEC needs vision and focus, and APEC needs to actively manage a wide range of inter-related groups, activities and programs, if it is to achieve its goals and live up to its potential," he recently told businessmen in Singapore.

Asian nations in recent years have proceeded at a "tremendous pace" toward regional economic integration, while the gulf between them and the group's developed Western rim remains great, says economist Tan.

Southeast Asia and its northern neighbors -- China, Japan and South Korea -- are clearly putting far greater priority on forging links, including free-trade arrangements, among themselves than casting their economic nets across the Pacific, he says.

From this perspective, the US probably finds APEC more important than most Asian countries.

"It may be part of US grand, strategic thinking to use APEC to maintain its influence in the region and obstruct or compete with Asian groupings," says Prapas, of Bangkok's Thammasat University.

Concern has been raised that the Bangkok meeting could even undermine APEC's policy of multilateralism and avowed goal of reviving the recently collapsed World Trade Organization talks. Participants may use the conference as a convenient forum to work out more of the bilateral and regional free-trade agreements that have been mushrooming around the Pacific Rim.

Part of APEC's problems are structural. It functions on a trifling annual budget of US$3.5 million, raised from member contributions, and its Singapore-based secretariat employs just 40 staffers.

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