An excess of high-profile, low-output summitry risks
diverting energies from real issues to photo opportunities.
Recent days have seen
the much publicized meeting of APEC, the Asia-Pacific Economic
Cooperation group, in Pusan, South Korea, attended by George W. Bush
and President Hu Jintao of China, and the largely ignored meeting of
the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in Dhaka. In
four weeks, half these leaders will be in Kuala Lumpur for the
16-member East Asian Summit, which now includes India , Australia
and New Zealand. Before that is the first Asean-Russia meeting, a
consolation prize for President Vladimir Putin for not being asked
to the bigger gathering.
None of the above
leaders, however, will be at the far more important gathering - the
World Trade Organization's ministerial meeting in Hong Kong next
month. The crucial decision on world trade issues that need to be
made at the highest level will be negotiated instead by trade
ministers, often lacking strong negotiating mandates and mostly
figures of moderate political weight.
Yet the latest summits
illustrate just why the success of the WTO meeting is so important
to all concerned. APEC was able to make a plea for WTO progress and
a well-deserved and none-too-veiled admonishment of Europe for its
obstruction of progress on the key issue of agriculture. But the
disparate interests represented by APEC were unable to offer either
proposals which could contribute to a breakthrough, or threat to
retaliate if Europe did not budge. Indeed the Korean farmer
demonstrators were a reminder that the positions of Korea and Japan
on farm trade are also significant obstacles to WTO progress and
rule out a common APEC stance.
The APEC meeting also
showed why East Asia finds it so difficult to find the political
common ground necessary for regionwide trade agreements along the
lines of those in North America and Europe. China and Korea both
took the opportunity to massage nationalism by attacking Prime
Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan for his shrine visits. While
APEC may provide an opportunity for bilateral talks, its
achievements in Pusan were scant - some rote statements about
cooperation on that now perennial issue, terrorism, and the new one,
bird flu, on which no one can disagree.
While broad-based East
Asian economic cooperation makes slow progress, bilateral free trade
agreements continue to sprout. APEC itself, with its so-called "open
architecture" approach to trade liberalization, gives an imprimatur
to these deals, which are slowly but surely undermining the
fundamental principle of the WTO - nondiscrimination. The bilateral
agreements are driven more by political interests - mainly those of
the United States and China - than by economics. In theory they
might stimulate broader trade liberalization, but in practice create
confusion and new categories of special interests.
Over in Dhaka the
previous week, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation
was no more successful. India-Pakistan rapprochement should have
been a good platform from which this postponed meeting could make
progress. But all the smaller members fret about what they see as
India's overbearing attitudes. Normally diplomatic, Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh of India ruffled feathers by talking about the danger
of "failed states," apparently a reference to Nepal and Bangladesh
rather than to the failed states within India's borders.
Retribution for India
came with the demand from the smaller members that in return for
admitting Afghanistan, an "observer" category would be created that
would allow China (and Japan) to attend - a sure way of diluting
SAARC has been making
some progress toward negotiating a free trade area. But the
obstacles are many, including India's pursuit of bilateral deals.
Regional trade in South Asia is minimal, mostly for political
reasons, and cooperation on vital issues like water and transport
are also bedeviled by politics. Thus, hopes that the region continue
the rapid progress it has made - from a low base - toward being a
global player will depend more on what happens to the WTO than to
SAARCs snail's progress.
If there is a silver
lining in Pusan and Dhaka, it must surely be the realization by
China and India of the overriding importance of WTO if their own
outward-oriented growth is to continue. Both could best show up the
European Union's obstructionism and their own commitment to the WTO
by being prepared to offer greater trade liberalization in other
areas, like services and manufactures. Asia needs to stop talking
and offer leadership.