HONG KONG: Prime Minister John Howard has called it the "most important international meeting ever held in Australia" and has closed down some of Sydney's top tourist attractions in the name of security. But others might wonder why so many world leaders travel so far for so little. The summit meetings of the 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum have become meetings of characters in search of an author. Mostly they are there because the others are there too.
Participants will include the presidents of the United States, China, Russia, Indonesia, Korea, Mexico and Vietnam and prime ministers from a dozen countries, including Japan. The main items on the agenda are listed as greenhouse emissions and global warming, the revival of the Doha round of world trade negotiations, and security issues, including terrorism and pandemics.
But APEC as a grouping has scant competence on any of these issues. The participating leaders have their own agendas, which have nothing to do with the organization itself. They can take advantage of the forum to discuss bilateral issues, or, in the case of George W. Bush, to round out a quick troop-cheering stopover in Iraq.
On climate change, Australia, never having signed the Kyoto protocol, is hardly in position to take a lead in advancing APEC-wide emission cuts. Indeed, with the United States, Russia and China all dragging their feet, APEC as a group is a drag on the rest of the world. The summit meeting will emerge with a reiteration of platitudes and fine-sounding but non-binding promises.
The forum should be more relevant on the trade issues it was set up to advance. But its own efforts to evolve into a free-trade area stalled several years ago. Recent years have been marked by a proliferation of bilateral and sub-regional pacts that are supposed to promote freer trade but instead create a confusion of preferential arrangements contrary to the group's original principles, which called for members to liberalize their economies at their own pace on a non-discriminatory basis.
For sure, members can talk grandly about the need for Doha progress. But, just as at the last APEC summit in Hanoi 10 months ago, no specific proposals will be agreed upon that can help force the hand of the main non-APEC players - the European Union, India and Brazil. There simply will be more repetitions of the exhortations of past summit meetings, including those of the G-8.
As for security, many countries are deeply suspicious of the Australian and American roles in the so-called war on terror; APEC, moreover, has no definable role in prevention of pandemics or the providing of aid following natural disasters like the 2004 tsunami that devastated APEC and non-APEC countries alike.
At the Hanoi meeting, much rhetoric was devoted to the North Korean nuclear issue. Since then, huge progress has been made. Although all participants in the six-party talks on Korea, except Pyongyang, are APEC members, the group itself never played a role.
So what will the leaders do in Sydney? Bush may be usefully engaged in a tripartite dialogue on defense issues with Japan and Australia, talks guaranteed to be viewed sourly by China, which knows that "containment" of its rising military might is on the agenda. Presidents Hu Jintao of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan may have some issues to talk about, but they have all met one another recently in either bilateral or multilateral get-togethers.
Having first proposed the creation of APEC, Australia is naturally eager to play up its importance. Australia's original proposal simply linked Australasia and the western Pacific to East Asia. But as the United States insisted on membership, geographical logic had to extend membership to Canada, the Pacific states of Latin America and eventually to Russia. APEC lacks a sense of community or a meaningful role beyond technical trade issues.
It is too late to try to shrink the forum back to the original blueprint. That space has been largely filled by the Asean plus 3 group (the 10 Southeast Asian countries plus China, Japan and South Korea), which Australia aspires to join. APEC summit meetings seem more driven by the desire of the host nation for the prestige supposedly attached to it.
Organizations like APEC are never killed off. But the forum's leaders should abandon these summit meetings and leave the organization to trade ministers to try to put it to some practical purpose. Or else, they should let APEC fade gracefully away.