Political Posing in Lieu of Economic Cooperation
 
Philip Bowring International Herald Tribune
Wednesday, October 24, 2001
HONG KONG The get-together in Shanghai may have been useful for an exchange of body language among Presidents Bush, Jiang and Putin, but the net impact appears neutral at best. The primary purpose of an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit conference is economic, and it was sidelined despite the potential for concerted action against a downturn that was well under way before Sept. 11.
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The political content of the weekend was high on rhetoric and illusion. The event yielded short-term public relations gains for Washington and Beijing but underscored how much China is benefiting from U.S. policy priorities at the expense of the traditional interests of America and its allies in Asia.
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America came away with broad support for its anti-terror campaign. Colin Powell emphasized the improvement in Chinese-U.S. relations, and George W. Bush heaped praise on Jiang Zemin's anti-terror efforts. All this has helped spread the impression that the world at large is behind Washington.
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In reality, no specific backing for the West's campaign in Afghanistan emerged, and China and Russia were conspicuous in avoiding endorsement of military action. So China in particular is now enjoying a free ride for not directly criticizing the United States and for offering some low-level cooperation against terrorism.
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In practice, even if it wanted, there is little Beijing can contribute to the struggle. China is not a significant money conduit, and its intelligence network in the Arab world is feeble. More important for China is that its dirty war against Uighur separatists can be stepped up. The West will probably turn a blind eye. Although some Taliban ideas may have penetrated Xinjiang, this is mainly an ethnic struggle by Turkic peoples against Han Chinese colonization and overlordship.
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China is also openly - and successfully - using the moment to pressure the United States on Taiwan.
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If America gets bogged down in Afghanistan, Beijing may shed some public tears but quietly chuckle at an exposure of the limits of Western power. If the campaign succeeds, it will claim some credit and hope to reap benefits in Xinjiang.
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It might then have to tolerate enhanced U.S. influence in Central Asia, but it may figure that once Osama bin Laden and the Taliban are gone, U.S. interest in the region will wane.
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U.S. influence in Russia's former bailiwick is more of a headache for Moscow than for Beijing. Depending on how the war plays out for Pakistan, a bigger U.S. role in Central Asia might harm India more than China. Seeing the Shanghai meeting in this perspective strengthens the argument that America might do better to go it alone, with narrow objectives, than pay a high political price for equivocal support from opportunistic allies.
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Past U.S. support for the Taliban as a force which could unify Afghanistan and so allow energy exports from Central Asia backfired. That should be enough reminder of the need to choose friends with care and not forget long-term interests.
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Meanwhile, in Shanghai the economic raison d'Ítre of APEC received scant attention. There was agreement on the importance of the coming World Trade Organization ministerial meeting but no APEC contribution to resolving wrangles over its agenda. Some members seemed to attach more importance to getting the meeting moved from Qatar to Singapore than to achieving a successful outcome.
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There was concern about the global slowdown, but concern without action is meaningless.
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There was, for example, no suggestion that those with large current account surpluses and tolerable levels of debt agree to provide additional domestic stimulus. Coordinated fiscal and/or monetary stimulus is the only way to reduce dangerous overreliance on the United States as the engine of growth and market of last resort.
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It is quite possible that war nerves, if not the war itself, will prove short-lived. But that will not cure the economic problem. Excess of investment, not just in information technology, and the collapse of profits are a global phenomenon but most acute in the APEC region. Does APEC recognize this? Or is it just an occasion for photo-ops in colorful costumes?

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