APEC: A free-trade vision or just a conference trick?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 September, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 September, 1995, 12:00am

PARTS of Asia are short of human rights, some parts are short of food, many are short of energy.

What Asia is not short of is trade bodies, talking shops, forums, or jaw-fest organisers.

Perhaps the greatest is the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) forum.

Formed in 1989 with the six members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, Japan and South Korea, APEC now has 18 members, including China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

APEC is not a legal body in the way that the North American Free Trade Agreement or the World Trade Organisation are. It cannot make law like the European Union can, but works through consensus and behind closed doors. No matter how heated argument may be, only a consensus document is released to the public - although delegates may make it clear where their own perceived interest lies.

This week, Hong Kong's Furama Hotel hosts a special session of senior officials. The territory's representative is Director-General of Trade Tony Miller.

Each member has two or more senior officials at the meeting, one of a series in the run-up to the November leaders' meeting in Osaka, Japan.

Already this year, there have been two ordinary sessions of the senior officials group, four special sessions of the officials and dozens of smaller meetings around Asia.

Senior officials have to agree on planks in an 'action agenda', itself the result of last year's meeting of APEC leaders in Bogor, Indonesia which set the goal of 'open free trade and investment' by 2020.

The three-page Declaration of Common Resolve agreed on at Bogor contains no concrete steps. Its 11 points are uncontroversial in the extreme.

It cannot have taken too much argument before the leaders at Bogor agreed that 'as we approach the 21st century, APEC needs to reinforce economic co-operation in the Asia-Pacific region on the basis of equal partnership, shared responsibility, mutual respect, common interest and common benefit'.

Given that all APEC members are signatories of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, they are committed by treaty to trade liberalisation anyway.

The concrete achievements of APEC are harder to find.

'I think the fact that APEC exists is a major achievement,' said Doug Ryan, director of public affairs for the organisation. 'Some 70 per cent of merchant trading by member countries is within APEC. These are good economic times, the Cold War is over, the Uruguay Round has been concluded. Each economy has a real stake in APEC's success,' he said.

Mr Ryan said APEC 'can't compete with legally based organisations which might drive down tariffs on newsprint. What it can do is shine light on the Uruguay Round. We do not plan for APEC to be a trading bloc.' Nevertheless, the goal of an 'action agenda' is still being pursued.

'There are three parts to the action agenda,' said Mr Ryan, 'There is the question of definition: what is free-trade and investment?' 'Then there are the modalities involved, such as what forms of agreements can be made in an organisation without legally binding treaties, and finally there is the schedule.' APEC has given itself plenty of time to achieve a goal of free trade, but given that after five years, millions of air miles and thousands of nights in plush hotels (the Furama's cheapest room is $2,150 a night) it has still to agree what free trade is, that is most fortunate.

The questions for tax-payers paying for the jaunts and jollies are these: is free trade by 2020 a vision or a hallucination? And is APEC all one big conference trick?