The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) grouping will hold its annual summit meeting in Singapore this weekend, with the leaders of its 21 member-nations expected to attend. But do we really need yet another high-level global talk-fest?
In July we had the Group of Eight annual summit meeting of leaders from the world’s allegedly main industrial nations. In September we had the Pittsburgh summit meeting of G20 national leaders to talk about finance, and an Istanbul meeting of G7 finance ministers also to talk about finance. This coincided with the U.N. General Assembly opening, which also demanded the presence of national leaders.
Meanwhile, the various meetings based on the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) also demanded the attendance of national leaders. Now we have APEC. When do these national leaders ever get down to the business of running their countries?
Worse, much of this activity has outdated Cold War origins. The G8 — originally the G-6 but then the G7 a year later when Canada was admitted in 1976 — owes its existence to rivalry between hawkish U.S. academic Zbigniew Brzezinski, with his Trilateral Commission of opinion leaders in Europe, North America and Japan, seeking in 1973 to counter what he saw as then U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s dangerously soft policies toward Moscow. This motivated Kissinger to organize his own group — the G7 of the six main Western governments and Japan — to show that he too could be anti-Moscow.
The Trilateral Commission has since faded somewhat. But the G7 survived, with Moscow also invited to join once it ceased to be an alleged menace. The G7 became G8, though finance minister meetings remain G7 and the G8 is being supplanted by the G20, which includes almost every nation with economic clout. But some now say the G20 is too big and a G4 — the United States, China, Japan and the European Union — should be the main focus. Either way, the G8 seems finally on the way out.
APEC had similarly confused Cold War origins. Maybe it too should be on the way out. Back in the ’60s, Japan’s leftwing used to argue that Japan had to look back to Asia, that the markets and resources of China and the Soviet Union were crucial to Japan’s economic recovery. A right-leaning Japanese economist, Kiyoshi Kojima, argued that Japan should look east, to the Pacific Basin, and create a Pacific Free Trade Area (PAFTA) based on the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
I was in Japan at the time, involved with Kojima, and the idea that the rich Anglo-Saxon nations of the Pacific would want to throw open their markets just to get Japan’s Cold War friendship seemed quite unrealistic. But with the help of some other Australian university people Kojima was able to morph PAFTA into an academic discussion group called Pacific Free Trade and Development, together with the Pacific Basin Economic Cooperation Council — a forum for businessmen. Finally we had the quasi-official Pacific Economic Cooperation Council, where both the academics and the businessmen could come together for more discussions, this time with bureaucratic and political endorsement.
Meanwhile, Japan’s Foreign Ministry, remembering that Japan was supposed to be part of Asia, was promoting the Asian and Pacific Council and various specialist groups that hopefully would see the noncommunist Asian nations brought together. But vagueness of purpose, and Asian suspicions of Japanese leadership ambitions, left them weak.
Eventually official Japan, with Kojima still at the helm, began to push for an Asia-Pacific grouping — APEC — which would pull all these efforts together. And to avoid those continued Asian suspicions, a very willing Canberra, which has since claimed full credit for APEC creation, was asked to be the official sponsor.
Kojima’s fingerprints remained heavy. To retain his original Pacific Basin orientation, APEC has had to include selected Latin Americans — Mexico, Chile, Peru. It also tried for as long as possible to exclude communist Asia. But reality prevailed and we now have Russia (which never saw an Asian grouping it did not like), Beijing and even the once detested Hanoi included (originally APEC was supposed to provide international legitimacy to Saigon). But Taiwan stays included, as an irritant to Beijing.
APEC is sometimes described as an organization in search of a meaning. And rightly. Committees and subcommittees proliferate, but do little. Its summit meetings have become ever more pretentious, and toothless; even its members ignore its ritualistic calls for more free trade. It is a tribute to the ease with which bureaucrats and academics can feed endlessly from the inert bodies of international organizations that, once established, cannot be mercifully extinguished.
Even its networking merits are duplicated by the various moves for a more purely Asian grouping that began 40 years ago with the creation of ASEAN, later expanded to ASEAN plus three (China, Japan, South Korea) and now further expanded into an East Asia Summit to include India, Australia and New Zealand.
Meanwhile, we have had former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s scheme for an anti-China grouping of Asian democracies that would include India, Australia and New Zealand, and have links to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO (which never saw a military involvement it did not like). This has now been supplanted by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s scheme for an East Asia Community centered on Japan, China and South Korea, and including possibly an insistent U.S. (which never saw an Asian grouping it did not want to dominate).
Meanwhile, some hawks in Japan want an Asia-Pacific grouping with teeth, to talk about something called “regional security” and centered on such former Cold War worthies as the U.S., Australia, South Korea and NATO. (Memo to Beijing: Do not even bother to apply for this one.) Finally we have Canberra’s call for an ill-defined Asia-Pacific community to include everybody. Where will it all end?
Gregory Clark, a former Australian diplomat, is vice president of Akita International University. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net.