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The annual meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum was held last weekend in Hanoi. The Vietnamese hosts were no doubt pleased with the results. The conclave showcased the country’s economic development and provided an exclamation point for Vietnam’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). But critics still charge that APEC is “four adjectives in search of a noun,” and last weekend’s meeting did little to suggest otherwise.

The APEC Leaders Summit, inaugurated 14 years ago, is one of the few opportunities for heads of state from the region to meet and discuss their shared concerns. With members spanning the entire Asia-Pacific region and including some of the world’s richest and most developed countries as well as some of the poorest, APEC is forced to take a lowest common denominator approach to many issues.

A decade ago, the group genuinely pushed the policy envelope, but since then, implementation of creative solutions to problems has languished and frustrations have mounted. The Leaders Summit has produced annual declarations of lofty goals, but those words have not been matched by action.

This year was little different. As always, the assembled heads of state reaffirmed their commitment to free trade, and said that reviving the stalled round of Doha global trade talks remains a priority. Their declaration noted that “We should, therefore, spare no effort to break the current deadlocks and achieve an ambitious and overall balanced outcome.” Unfortunately, those same heads of state have not been willing to take the steps necessary to rejuvenate the talks: There is an odd disconnect between calling for progress and then refusing to empower negotiators to do just that.

More positively, the final declaration said the group will follow up on the U.S. proposal to create a pan Asia-Pacific free trade area, but only to study whether it is a reasonable long-term objective for APEC. It also recommended models for free trade agreements, and called for more cooperation in fighting pandemic diseases and improving disaster plans, including ways to resume disrupted services in the event of a terrorist attack or natural disaster.

Echoing previous declarations, the leaders promised to fight terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and other new security threats that could undermine regional security and stability.

While Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet, the chair of the meeting, said the North Korean missile and nuclear tests were “a clear threat to our shared interest in peace and security,” the joint declaration itself made no reference to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. They did declare support for the six-party talks and the need for a peaceful solution to the crisis in Northeast Asia.

There are several explanations for the omission: North Korea is not a member of APEC and other governments might have felt uncomfortable censoring a regional state that was not able to join in the discussions. Alternatively, there is growing discomfort with APEC’s increasing focus on security issues, which disturbs some members who argue that it distracts from its main mission — promoting economic development.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, whose country will host next year’s meeting, concedes that the organization “has compromised its original focus and blurred its focus.” He pledged to restore that focus at next year’s meeting.

If the Leaders Summit itself was frustrating, two other APEC elements provide more solace. The first is the lower-level work that focuses on the nuts and bolts of trade facilitation and capacity building. This work is unheralded, but crucial to the region’s economic development: It validates APEC’s purpose.

The second element involves the various bilateral and trilateral meetings that occur on the sidelines of the Leaders Summit. APEC gives regional leaders a chance to build the relationships and familiarity that allow them to deal with crises more effectively when they occur.

The Hanoi meeting provided the opportunity for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to have his first meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush since Mr. Abe took over from Mr. Junichiro Koizumi. It was not a get-acquainted session, as the two men had met previously when Mr. Abe was chief Cabinet secretary. Their conversation took up security issues such as North Korea, and they, along with South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, agreed to work more closely together and with China to try to resolve the North Korean problem. Of course, the proper forum for that is the six-party talks. APEC has little real role to play. As usual.

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