APEC stumbles at the start
AS STARTS go, this was a rocky one. The word 'consensus' has reverberated around this year's Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) meeting but when the delegates got their first chance to demonstrate that 18 divergent nations with 18 divergent agendas could be unified, success appeared illusory.
Initial discussions by senior officials from the APEC member nations on broad guidelines to free up regional trade and investment were scuppered by United States' objections to three of the 12 items under consideration.
As such, the first day was a wash-out. Instead of demonstrating APEC's strengths, senior officials opened wounds that went to the heart of the APEC vision. Instead of concord, there was controversy; vision was replaced by vested interest.
But this was not the way it was supposed to be. The initial meetings were conducted by senior officials from the member nations. It was their job to refine certain APEC discussion areas and prepare briefing papers for their ministers.
Failure to reach agreement on trade and investment would leave ministers to thrash out the details. If they failed to reach an accord, it would be left up to economic leaders to reach a compromise.
The meeting was APEC's first hurdle, and while it did not fall, it rattled badly. The US delegation urged members to adopt more radical guidelines for the freeing up of trade and investment, and argued that the conclusions were non-binding and could be modified at a later date. Other delegates were willing to sign on the dotted line but were forced to return again and again to the debating table in search of an elusive unanimous consensus.
Tony Miller, director-general of the Hong Kong Trade Department, was keen to toe the party line on APEC, but indicated a degree of impatience with the US-generated hold-up. 'Obviously, there are going to be differences, but we are at a stage where we are considering whether the perfect should be the enemy of the good,' he said.
With an almost Chinese fondness for metaphor, he compared a workable solution to a jeep, and the US proposals to a Rolls-Royce. 'APEC is not a homogeneous group of economies, and the key is to find the best solution available in the given time. This may mean a solution that can run on rougher roads.' Such pragmatism was not to be found among the Malaysian delegation. Long-time questioners of, if not objectors to, APEC's raison d'etre , they were less inclined to strive towards a united front.
One delegate who declined to be named said: 'We were very disappointed with the US' stance. It does make us think that there might be a political agenda underlying the US' APEC agenda.' He even mentioned the frightening spectre of senior officials discussing the best way to reach a consensus, but failing even to agree on that. In other words, there was not even a consensus on a consensus.
But of all nations with an agenda that surpasses the APEC remit, Malaysia has been accused of being the worst offender. It has consistently and vehemently touted Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's idea of a type of Asians-only APEC, called the East Asian Economic Caucus (EAEC), that would exclude the US, Australia and Canada.
Although Malaysia generally backs APEC, its reluctance to be subjected to a non-Asian power block has been ill-concealed. Such a stance has done little to impress fellow delegates. One Australian senior official, when told about some nations' objections to the US position on trade and investment, snapped: 'Let me guess, a Malaysian told you that.' It was apparent delegates' smiles were sometimes only skin-deep and that battles were being fought across the negotiating table that went beyond the agenda lying before them. There were, however, other items for the senior officials to discuss aside from trade and investment, and on these less contentious issues, consensus did seem attainable.
Wisber Loeis, the Indonesian chairman of the senior officials' meeting, said during the first day's discussion that 12 of the 17 items under consideration had been approved.
The conclusions, however, were so broad in their scope that it would be difficult to see how consensus could not be reached. For example, an agreement was signed on regional infrastructural needs, which was expressed in these terms by Ruslan Diwiryo, a senior official at the Indonesian Department of Public Works: 'Ways and means should be found to develop the region's infrastructure.' One Western delegate said: 'Even the most obstreperous nation couldn't disagree with that.' But while such conclusions represent encouraging if not significant steps forward, trade and investment are the real skeletons of APEC. Without the vision of liberalised trade across the Asia-Pacific region, APEC is little more than a loosely connected body of emerged and emerging economies. For this year's summit to be considered a success, agreement has to be reached on this fundamental issue, and as yet, it is still beyond delegates' grasp.
Sandra O'Leary, a senior US delegate, denied the US was deliberately slowing up the process of reaching a consensus and added the debate indicated how seriously the US took the ideas underlying APEC. 'I don't think it is correct to see this disagreement as a sign of weakness within APEC. As we talk about more challenging issues, the discussion is bound to become more challenging,' she said.
But the deadlines were pressing. Throughout the second day of the senior officials' meeting, no consensus was reached. They were left with just one morning to finalise an official position on trade and investment before the government ministers from member nations arrived to take the issue further. Failure would mean ministers faced an uncompleted and fractious agenda for their two days of talks.
The issue went down to the wire. All-night negotiations prior to the senior officials' meeting being wound up also ended in failure and, as the gavel banged down signalling the termination of talks, there was still no agreement. AFLURRY of press conferences were cancelled as delegates were forced to huddle in a separate meeting room in one last attempt to put their differences behind them. Upstairs, their ministers were already involved in an initial dinner meeting.
An additional eight-hour session, with the added incentive of a diplomatic failure on the cards, seemed to do the trick, and the delegates emerged bleary-eyed with a signed and sealed consensus. Rather than being an eleventh-hour conclusion, it was a 59th second of the 59th minute of the eleventh hour solution. Now it was up to the ministers.