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Throughout much of its history, critics have argued that the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum is purposeless. They allege the group has become too big and diverse to take meaningful collective action. The grand designs drawn up a decade ago have lost urgency, overtaken by events and new priorities. The annual leaders’ summit has become a photo opportunity, more useful because of the bilateral meetings that occur on the sidelines rather than any declaration they sign off on at the final session. More recently, they worry that APEC’s focus — economics — has been eclipsed by the U.S. concern about security and the war on terrorism.

The meeting that concluded last weekend in Santiago, Chile, will not quiet the critics. U.S. President George W. Bush continues to push his security agenda — from trying to halt nuclear proliferation by North Korea and Iran to fighting terrorism. They are also likely to complain that the final declaration nodded in the right directions — “urging” progress in the multilateral World Trade Organization talks and “endorsing” the fight against corruption — but made little progress in those efforts.

Looking only at the leaders’ summit is a mistake. Much of the real work in APEC occurs at the ministerial and working group levels, which meet throughout the year and put those lofty declarations into practice. The leaders’ statements provide direction for the group. To expect more of them is unrealistic.

This year’s final declaration again highlighted security concerns. Echoing Mr. Bush, it called for “unmistakable resolve to collectively confront the threat of terrorism and its disastrous effects” and to continue to work to “eliminate the danger posed by proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems and related items.”

On one level, the attention to security issues makes sense. Security and stability is the foundation of economic growth and prosperity. Agreement to help members develop machine-readable passports within the APEC region by 2008 and advanced passenger-screening alert systems is the type of practical measure that the group should focus on. Still, there is growing irritation among some APEC members that security prevails over economic issues. Those complaints would be muted if the United States embraced other nations’ priorities and objectives with the same enthusiasm that Washington demands of them.

On trade issues, the leaders called for renewed efforts to reach agreement in the Doha Round of multilateral trade negotiations, and endorsed Russian and Vietnamese negotiations on joining the WTO. They did not endorse a proposal by APEC business leaders to study setting up a regional free-trade area. That proposal may have been well intentioned, but it was too ambitious. APEC members are going to have enough difficulty trying to eliminate trade and investment barriers mentioned in the Bogor declaration.

The experience of APEC members in negotiating free-trade agreements — they have already completed 40 and 34 more are on the way — should be proof enough that a regionwide negotiation will be more frustrating than fruitful.

The proliferation of those deals is a source of concern. In the declaration, the leaders noted that bilateral and “mini-lateral” deals can help accelerate regional trade liberalization, but there are fears that they can install barriers to broader regional or global agreements. At a minimum, they increase costs to businesses that must comply with the various deals.

The APEC leaders and ministers agreed to set standards for two-country free-trade pacts. The guidelines, which will not be legally binding, will ensure that any such deals are WTO-consistent and comprehensive. The concern is that they will leave out entire economic sectors — such as agriculture, which has been a sticking point in virtually every trade negotiation, bilateral or multilateral, especially where Japan is involved. This change — if taken seriously — will force serious rethinking among Japanese officials.

If this change is adopted, APEC will have made a substantive contribution to the WTO talks, fulfilling the leaders’ call to share experience and provide technical assistance and capacity building to the multilateral trade negotiations.

The APEC leaders also backed steps to fight corruption; in particular, they supported their ministers’ recommendation to ratify and then implement the U.N. Convention Against Corruption currently being developed. They also called for more progress on a regionwide strategy to protect intellectual property rights. As always, the test of that endorsement is the progress that has been made and the actual implementation of measures — on this and all other fronts. That is the easiest way to quiet APEC’s critics.

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