Asia comes out ahead as APEC settles down

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 November, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 November, 1993, 12:00am

THE Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) forum, which had for a brief moment stood on the cusp of fame, is back to business as normal.

So what was achieved? For one, APEC is bigger. It now numbers Mexico and Papua New Guinea among its ranks, and Chile is to be admitted next year.

After that, members are agreed, there is to be a moratorium on additions for three years.

Secondly, its trade and investment committee has come into its own.

This body will be committed to the undeniably worthy aim of facilitating trade without encroaching on the altogether more controversial ground of preferential tariff rates.

It is not glamorous work, but it has the excellent quality of benefiting grassroots traders by making the business of shipping goods more efficient and, therefore, that bit cheaper.

But as for the big dreams, cracked up by chairman of the advisory panel Fred Bergsten, of free trade in the region and an Asia-Pacific Economic Community - a more institutionalised APEC, but without the bureaucracy and legal mumbo-jumbo of its European namesake - death was swift.

Despite backing from the Western side - America and Australia - with additional muscle supplied by Singapore and South Korea, the ASEAN countries won the day.

APEC will be - in US President Bill Clinton's scenario - the sort of community where neighbouring countries sit down over coffee to discuss whatever happens to be on the mutual agenda and of concern to the 17 economies.

Mr Clinton was putting on a brave face in Seattle. His chief aim in life is to provide jobs and increased prosperity for the 200 million-odd people under his wing. And his method: selling more to Asia's boom towns.

But there can be no doubt: his plan was to harness Asian growth for the US through the creation of an Asian style North American Free Trade Agreement, and what he got was a rather flabby Residents Association.

This failure of APEC to take off in the way America wished to see it take off was a poor platform for Mr Clinton to fly in on.

His leaders' meeting, tacked on to the end of the APEC ministerial discussions, was to have been a crowning glory, a seal of approval on a new alliance and the start of improved relations between the US and its Asian trading partners.

But these bilateral meetings by and large fell as flat as the elevation of APEC.

Contrary to speculation, Mr Clinton did not beat down Japan over rice or China over Taiwan or human rights.

The American side stressed: ''What is important is that we have started a dialogue with one another.'' The pictures that graced international papers showing a stoney-faced Mr Clinton and a beaming Jiang Zemin showed just how much of a dialogue the most important of these bilateral meetings - the Sino-US one - fostered.

Mr Clinton started to talk about human rights and Tibet - subjects dear to the heart of the American homeland but, from the perspective of many this side of the world, rather unrelated to trade and economics.

Mr Jiang responded with a full 15-minute lecture, the White House said, telling Mr Clinton it was not his business. The subject of Taiwan arising at other meetings was likewise summarily dismissed.

Unusually - and perhaps this was the one truly historical event of a conference which dubbed almost everything historical - it was China that held all the cards; China, with its double-digit economic growth and 1.17 billion people, that could dictate to moral majority America.

If it wasn't clear before, it was in luminous nine-foot letters now: APEC was in the hands of the Asian countries, and it was America that would be forced to make concessions when the moment for hard bargaining arrived.

This is not to say last week was a failure and APEC is less alive and kicking than it was in the pre-Seattle days.

It is simply that it takes more than a tea-time chat among such disparate economies to form a union that makes decisions by consensus and grows without antagonising the outside world.