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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 October, 2003, 06:03 GMT 07:03 UK
How APEC has changed

By Jonathan Head
BBC Tokyo Correspondent

This year's annual summit of the Asia Pacific countries in Bangkok has once again been overshadowed by political and diplomatic issues.

This year, US concerns over North Korea and the continued threat of terrorism in South East Asia have dominated a forum which was established 14 years ago to promote free trade.

APEC's earliest goals were actually very modest.

It was an initiative of the then Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawk, backed by his east Asian neighbours who were concerned that their region's fast-growing economies would be disadvantaged by the emergence of free trade blocks like the European Union and the North American Free Trade Area.

At the first meeting, in 1989, members stressed that their discussions should be consultative and non-binding and should recognise their very different social and political systems.

It was only in 1993 that President Clinton proposed the lofty goal of an Asia Pacific free trade area with his now famous proclamation that this would be the Pacific century.

But from the start, the annual summits were easily sidetracked by non-economic issues.

The 1994 meeting in Indonesia was dominated by East Timorese protestors sheltering in the US embassy.

Meltdown

The crisis in East Timor once again overshadowed the summit in Auckland in 1999.

In Shanghai in 2001, as George Bush made his first overseas trip following the attacks on September the 11th, all talk was about terrorism.

In any case, the self confidence of the region which had once given it a sense of purpose was badly shaken by the Asian economic meltdown of 1997.

These days important trade decisions in the region are left to the World Trade Organisation whose agreements are at least binding.

A growing number of Asia Pacific countries are making bilateral trade deals with each other because multilateral free trade is so slow in coming.

So is there any point to APEC?

It is still the only forum in which leaders of such key economies as Japan, the United States and China can get together in a relaxed setting and discuss anything that is on their minds.

It is worth remembering too that APEC's members account for half of all global economic activity and that they are all believers in globalisation and free trade.

If APEC did not exist they would probably have to invent something very like it.


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