No sense of direction

As Australia plays host to the Apec forum's summit in Sydney this week, Sydneysiders have to struggle with traffic diversions and delays, and the heaviest security the city has ever seen. Special legislation allows police to ban people on an 'exclusion list' from entering the city centre during the period of the meeting. This is to cope with protests by anti-globalisation activists, the anti-American left and Bush-haters over Iraq.

A brainchild of Australia in 1989, the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation forum has since grown into a regular summit of world leaders. Their combined political weight is supposed to help produce answers to global problems. Designed as a community of economies, it is one of those rare global bodies where the representative of Taiwan's president can stand side by side with the president of mainland China, in an atmosphere of inclusiveness where economics takes precedence over politics.

However, as Apec expands its membership - currently 21 - to include economies not only from East Asia, Southeast Asia and North America, but also Russia and Latin America (such as Chile), its mission and focus risk becoming bland and polite, bordering almost on the merely ceremonial. That is reflected by the specially designed national dress of the hosting economy that all the leaders wear, to display solidarity and respect for cultural diversity.

The founding spirit of Apec is to address all the big global challenges of the day. Behind the rhetoric of summit statements, however, and between bilateral mini-summits involving some leaders, reality often falls behind aspirations and exhortations. In truth, Apec operates more as a friendship gathering than a negotiating forum with a specific mandate.

Since its first summit at Seattle in 1993, one can recall few global initiatives leading to concrete results made possible by an Apec agreement. The Shanghai summit in 2001 is said to have facilitated the successful launch of the Doha Development Agenda, and the Shanghai Accord the same year called for further trade liberalisation and transparency standards. The 2005 Pusan summit called on the European Union to reduce farm subsidies. But even so, trade negotiations have remained difficult.

For the Sydney summit, Australian Prime Minister John Howard has set three goals: encouraging the completion of the Doha Round of World Trade Organisation negotiations; promoting co-operation in security against terrorism, pandemics and natural disasters; and achieving an agreement on global climate change, with long-term targets for cutting global greenhouse gas emissions. This may well turn out to be a nice-to-hear political polemic. But why would Apec be able to succeed where the several post-Doha rounds have become stalled and where the Kyoto Protocol on climate change gets derailed? Unless Apec can deliver concrete results, however, its global relevance will be increasingly questioned.

By excluding Europe, Apec is not like the Group of Eight leading industrialised nations, which can speak with a firmer voice on behalf of the big players in the world economic order. Neither is it regional enough, like the European Union or Asean Plus Three (the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus the governments of Japan, China and South Korea).

The broad membership and size of Apec, though it gives the impression of strength and prestige is, ironically, also the source of inhibition and superficiality. By including both developed and developing economies, and big and small nations across a wide spectrum in Asia and the Pacific Rim, the identity of Apec gets blurred rather than enhanced. Apec combines an excessively diverse range of national and regional interests and strategic orientations. It will take much more than a leaders' summit to enable it to achieve a clear common purpose - not to mention practical joint agendas and binding plans.

Allan Gyngell, a former assistant to ex-Australian prime minister Paul Keating who helped push the Apec idea, has described the body as 'teetering on the brink of terminal irrelevance'. This may sound pessimistic, but it rings a timely alarm bell to the group's members. Apec is desperately in need of redefining its regionalism.

Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and founder of SynergyNet, a policy think-tank