Twin-track Apec could drift off chosen course

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 March, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 March, 1998, 12:00am

Businesses might still be awaiting the benefits of Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) but there is ample evidence it is producing plenty of jobs.

A small army of trade officials across the Asia-Pacific region are committed to the committees, sub-committees and myriad forums driving the reform process.

While no official statistics on the exact numbers are available, it is estimated thousands of government officials and hundreds of ministers are involved to various extents in the detailed project to liberalise and facilitate trade.

These foot soldiers of reform are pushing forward their agendas under the common banner of liberalisation and facilitation.

The Apec forum has evolved into two distinct tracks: the annual summit at which the region's leaders meet, discuss and reshape their strategy; and the ongoing process of research, review and negotiation undertaken by their officials.

While theoretically tidy, the twin-track approach has the hidden danger of becoming unwieldly unless clear criteria and goals are set.

It is just such a conclusion that regional trade officials are beginning to reach.

They are planning to review the system to eliminate duplication and plug gaps.

Ironically, it is Malaysia - one of the more reluctant converts to the Apec goal - that is expected to institute the first steps of the reform process.

While the terms of reference of the planned review are still to be revealed, there are plenty of intriguing avenues that such a review process could take.

Clearly it is commendable to prevent the process of reform from being slowed by a bloated bureaucracy and potentially competing aims.

Keeping it lean, mean and goal-focused sits comfortably with Hong Kong's own bureaucratic ethos.

Better still to ask the question as to how officials and ministers can more effectively access leaders and attack bottlenecks that constrain their agendas.

Also, as the region attempts to drag itself from an economic mire, why not consider ways to invigorate the reform process? While trade officials believe progress is being made, there is widespread feeling Apec has achieved little in the way of practical reforms.

This generates indifference and apathy.

The United States created the free-trade agenda during the first leaders' summit in Washington in 1993.

At that summit, the US called for a 'community'. At Bogor, heads of state set goals of 'free and open trade and investment' by 2010-2020.

The leaders' meeting in Osaka developed the action agenda to reach that goal and at Subic Bay they began implementation.

Apec's goal is then to create a community - like Europe - using trade as the means.

There is more evidence that Asian members have adopted a mixed approach of selective liberalisation, export promotion and industrial policy tailored to their domestic and economic needs.

A review could profitably pose the strategic question of how Apec could most effectively move towards achieving the Bogor goal.

Is the Individual Action Plan (IAP) the most effective route? Should more emphasis be placed on sectoral efforts like the Information Technology Agreement? Or should there be a switch to sub-regional arrangements? As the region's leading multilateral economic framework, should Apec's finance ministers play a more active role in finding a solution to the region's ills? How should the forum respond to the admission of Russia? It will make a difficult process even more complex. The sprawling membership makes meeting the different expectations even more difficult.

There is an increasing need to review and refine the means of achieving the Apec's ambitious agenda.

The important work of Apec's Business Advisory Council in reviewing the IAPs was a useful illustration of what reasoned, researched criticism can achieve.

The planned Apec review should follow its lead.