Security matters, but Apec is still about trade

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 October, 2003, 12:00am

The annual gathering of leaders from the 21 nations of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum has, over the years, earned itself a reputation for style over substance. There was no shortage of the former at this year's two-day summit in Bangkok, which ended yesterday. Every effort was made to make the occasion a glamorous one, from a royal barge procession to a meeting in a throne room.

When it comes to substance, things are not so simple. First held in 1993 with the aim of promoting trade liberalisation in the Pacific Rim nations, the highlight has often been the customary posing for pictures by leaders wearing colourful silk shirts: that, and the fine-sounding declarations made at the end of each meeting.

All were in evidence in Bangkok. But this year's declaration is notable for two reasons. The first is that it formally acknowledges something that has been evident since the forum's meeting in Shanghai in 2001, just after the September 11 attacks on the United States - that the Apec agenda will no longer be restricted to efforts intended to boost prosperity through investment and trade. Security concerns, and particularly the threat posed by terrorism, are now considered just as important. This was emphasised by the priority given in the declaration to the dismantling of terror networks and efforts to eliminate weapons of mass destruction. While it was not mentioned in the document, finding a peaceful solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis was also at the forefront of the leaders' minds.

Security issues have obvious economic implications, and any opportunity for world leaders to develop co-ordinated responses to these problems is to be welcomed. But this is not what Apec was intended to achieve. The focus on terrorism should not be allowed to distract the gathering from its original agenda - one intended to further economic integration and growth. The Bangkok meeting made some progress on this front, vital in the wake of the failed World Trade Organisation talks in Cancun and fears of greater protectionism. But whether it turns out to be merely symbolic remains to be seen. Apec leaders, in the second important aspect of the declaration, agreed to 're-energise' the negotiation process which stalled in Mexico amid differences of opinion between developed and developing nations. They also pledged to work towards the elimination of agricultural subsidies, a major stumbling block. It is to be hoped these words will now be backed up with action, so that a successful conclusion to the WTO trade talks can finally be found. Flexibility on both sides of the divide will be needed.

In practical terms, much more was achieved on the sidelines of the two-day meeting to further free trade. Indeed, it can be argued that it is in these bilateral meetings that the real business is done. A variety of one-to-one trade deals were discussed, involving the US, China, Japan, Thailand, and Australia, among others. While such initiatives have their own merits, it is important that they are not allowed to undermine the multilateral approach to trade. Bilateral deals could serve to benefit the powerful at the expense of the weak. It is through agreement in the WTO talks - if only one can be reached - that the most equitable solution will be found.

The Apec forum has, once again, demonstrated its usefulness as an opportunity for leaders to get together and thrash out their differences. It must now follow with concrete measures.

The shirts worn by the leaders symbolised power and elegance. Elegance is never in short supply on these occasions. But the power which these economies undoubtedly wield - comprising around half of the world's GDP - must now be put to good use.