Grand illusions

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 October, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 October, 2001, 12:00am

The Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) summit in Shanghai was dominated by US diplomatic efforts to win broad support for its war against terror. This was just as well. Otherwise, it would have become embarrassingly obvious that the summit achieved absolutely nothing in the area it was supposed to focus on: economic co-operation.

Apec was formed in 1989 to promote trade and economic co-operation. Since that time, its leaders have issued a series of ambitious timetables for freeing trade and investment. The Bogor declaration in 1994 set a goal of freeing trade in the Pacific Rim by 2010 for developed countries, and 2020 for developed Apec members. The next year, in Osaka, Apec members pledged to undertake unilateral liberalisation plans.

Subsequent summits have reiterated these goals, and added new ones such as an 'e-Apec strategy for the development of the new economy' and an 'Apec strategy for combating infectious disease'.

It is obvious that all these goals can be better achieved through other international organisations. The World Trade Organisation is the main forum for multilateral trade liberalisation, and it is only through the WTO that Apec members can reduce trade barriers. Infectious diseases are better left to the World Health Organisation.

So why do Apec leaders meet to issue grand statements that are promptly forgotten the minute the summit ends? This is a mystery that has yet to be explained.

This is not to say that the summits are completely useless. They provide a useful forum for leaders to meet and exchange views. They should be seen as just that - a meeting place for otherwise busy leaders. The next time around, they should shelve the grand declarations. No one is going to miss them.