APEC has spoken, but it's unclear anyone will listen


Mon, Nov 21, 2005 - Page 12

What's it all about, APEC?

That's the question each time leaders from the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation hold their annual summit.

Wags have mocked the summit as "four adjectives in search of a noun" or "aging politicians enjoying cocktails." Other critics call APEC ineffectual, or say its emphasis on pushing free trade comes at the expense of developing nations and the poor.

Officials of the 21-member forum insist the meeting is more than just a talk shop.

Still, this year's gathering in Busan was typical: It focused on how to respond to trouble within the WTO -- an issue that lies outside the confines of APEC and that the APEC summit covered five years ago.

After six days of preparatory meetings by senior officials, ministers, and leaders including US President George W. Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), the summit on Saturday called for a breakthrough in the WTO's current global trade round, stalled over disputes about reducing farming subsidies, mostly in Europe.

But no one is certain that anyone outside APEC will listen -- even though the group's collective clout includes seven of the world's largest economies and almost half the world's trade.

Critics have long had a field day with the consensus-driven APEC, which was founded in 1989 to "further enhance economic growth and prosperity for the region and to strengthen the Asia-Pacific community." APEC operates on the principle of unanimous agreement, with all decisions and statements being ultimately nonbinding.

"We know that it's voluntary to be part of APEC but this voluntarism must show some results," said Julio Millan, chief executive of Mexican conglomerate Coraza Corp Azteca, who with other corporate leaders lobbies the forum through the APEC Business Advisory Council.

Defenders argue that APEC's uniqueness lies in being a forum for dialogue between government and business. It also provides a place for APEC leaders to speak with each other individually. Sideline meetings are such a mainstay of APEC summits that some fret they overshadow the larger agenda.

"I worry sometimes that the developed countries treat this as a bilateral meeting event," said Roberto Romulo, a former Philippine foreign secretary.

One thing APEC leaders agreed on in Busan: They'll gather again next year, in Hanoi, Vietnam.