As the Philippines hosts this week the APEC Leaders Meeting, to the tune of P10 billion pesos, and the annoyance of most Filipinos, it’s useful to recall certain facts about APEC lore and history. We ought at least to know what we are wasting our money on.
It’s wise to avoid the blather about “inclusivity” in the public relations campaign, because it’s hard to explain it to demonstrators.
And we should not take seriously the official spin that “the South China Sea” and “Islamic terrorism” are not part of the agenda.” Did all these personages come this far and at so much expense only to have their lips zipped shut?
Obama has told Americans he will take up the South China Sea territorial issues during the meeting. Other leaders will no doubt bring up the horrific events in Paris and ask what they portend for security and stability in the Asia Pacific.
Since its birth in 1989 and up to now, APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) is still maddeningly awkward to write about. because the four words in the acronym remain suspended in the air, seeking a safety net.
Australia’s contribution to diplomacy
The Australians, who claim APEC as Australia’s “unique contribution to international diplomacy,” also gamely supplied the joke about the missing noun.
The first APEC conference was held in Canberra in November 1989.
The conference was the brainchild of Bob Hawke, Australian prime minister at the time and widely recognized as “founding father” of APEC, and Gareth Evans, then Australian foreign minister, who served as chairman of the initial meeting.
In 1993, in Seattle (the only APEC meeting which I personally covered), when the first Economic Leaders Meeting was convened, Evans made the crack that made history. He declared in answer to questions about what APEC is: “ Four adjectives in search of a noun.”
To this, the Economist has wryly added that the group also has to decide on its verb—what it actually does.
Since Seattle, it is generally presumed that APEC leaders have actively scouted for a noun that would fit.
“Summit” was tried by the media, but it did not catch; it was a misnomer for what the leaders actually did. “Forum” “Conference” and “ gathering” were also tried. Then “APEC Economic Leaders Meeting” was applied to the centerpiece confab of heads of state, and it has been that way ever since.
“Economic leaders” was appropriate because the members of APEC are not admitted as states, but as member economies.
This was the unique solution reached in bringing China, Taiwan (Chinese Taipei) and Hong Kong into the club. They are all parts of China.
The general rule for membership is that a member must have a coastline bordering the Pacific Ocean. This is why India has been excluded.
Russia and Vietnam were admitted in the same year 1998.
An idea whose time had come
The idea of APEC was first publicly raised in a speech in Seoul in January 1989 by Hawke. Within less than a year, the inaugural conference was convened.
When asked how such a massive initiative came together so quickly, Hawke explained it this way;
“It’s one of the shortest gestation periods, I suppose, for any major international organization. But it was a reflection of the fact that the time really had come for something like this.
“In late ’88, one could feel that basic fundamentals of world international relationships were changing. It was fairly clear that the Soviet Union … was on its way out. China was on its way up. The center of economic gravity in the world was quite clearly moving from the mid-Atlantic to mid-Pacific. That was understood readily by most of the nations in the region.”
Evans, for his part, recalled in an interview what led him to make the crack about APEC’s search for a noun.
“We were not sure for some time, for example, of the concept of Taiwan being involved as an economy rather than a sovereign state in order to accommodate the Chinese. The continuing general nervousness surrounding many of these issues led me to make the rather famous remark in Seattle [in 1993]that APEC was “four adjectives in search of a noun.”
“It was said jokingly, but it was an accurate description of the need to shrug off a lot of the caution surrounding the issues and give this body a formal institutional coherence. It wasn’t dismissive. It was an acknowledgement that this is a work in progress and the need to shrug off many of the inhibitions that have (delayed) progress.
“In retrospect, the progress has been a little disappointing. After the initial momentum, from Seattle and thereafter, I think the progress has been somewhat disappointing.”
Politics and security
The APEC annual leaders meeting has clearly become a vital opportunity to discuss political and security issues. It’s been useful not only in terms of international trading relations, but also in important political discussions. For instance, when the leaders met at the time of the crisis in Indonesia [1999, in New Zealand] some very important discussions took place on that issue. Pressure was applied by delegations toward a resolution of the situation between Indonesia and East Timor. This shows an example of APEC effectiveness.
Security issues like terrorism are not entirely alien to APEC.
In 2003, Jemaah Islamiah leader Riduan Isamuddin had planned to attack the APEC Leaders Meeting to be held in Bangkok in October that year. He was captured in the city of Ayutthaya,Thailand by Thai police on August 11, 2003, before he could finish planning the attack.
Chile became the first South American nation to host the Leaders’ Meeting in 2004. The agenda that year focused on terrorism and commerce.
At the Leaders’ Meeting held on November 19, 2006 in Hanoi, APEC leaders called for a new start to global free-trade negotiations while condemning terrorism and other threats to security.
It is more than likely that the Paris attacks will be discussed this week in Manila.
Perhaps the search for a noun will end here.