A new APEC agenda

Print edition : November 10, 2001

The APEC meeting of world leaders in Shanghai is overshadowed by the U.S. campaign against terrorism, leaving economic issues on the back burner.

THE Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) annual leaders' meeting is a formidable assembly even in normal times. This year it had the added significance of being the first gathering of top leaders of the world after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Hectic meetings took place on the sidelines, with the attention naturally focussed on the President of the United States, George W. Bush. Bush, who held separate talks with the Chinese and Russian Presidents, Jiang Zemin and Vladimir Putin respectively, also met Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. There were also discussions on a wide range of issues between Jiang and Putin.

Whether it was the APEC meetings themselves or the meetings on the sidelines, the setting for the forum this year was significant. It was for the first time that China hosted the summit, and the Chinese leadership wanted to put up a show befitting the occasion.

APEC leaders in Shanghai.-ANDREW WONG/REUTERS

Pudong, Shanghai's new financial district, played host to 15,000 participants of the meeting. Its residents were given a five-day holiday. The normally bustling city of 14 million people came to a standstill, as traffic to and in Pudong was restricted to authorised vehicles.

In a sense, the September 11 attacks took away part of the focus from the impressive economic strides made by China, and in particular Shanghai, in recent years. The whole APEC forum, which is normally devoted to taking up economic issues, appeared to have been taken over by anti-terrorist concerns. Despite assurances during the run-up to the summit meetings on October 20-21 that the economic agenda would not be relegated to the background, that was precisely what happened. That the cataclysmic events of September 11 and the U.S. military response have come to dominate the global agenda was proved by the APEC meetings in Shanghai.

In the run-up to the summit meeting (which was technically called the leaders' meeting on account of Chinese sensitivities regarding Taiwan), the focus was not on the upcoming round of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) but on whether money-laundering would figure in a joint statement against terrorism. There were clear differences about the approach towards terrorism, but a general condemnation of terrorism did not prove to be an insurmountable hurdle following some fine-tuning of the language used in the joint statement.

The joint statement used language similar to recent United Nations resolutions condemning the September 11 attacks. But it did not stop at that. The joint statement said: "Leaders consider the murderous deeds as well as other terrorist attacks in all forms and manifestations, committed wherever, whenever and by whomsoever, as a profound threat to the peace, prosperity and security of all people, of all faiths, of all nations. Terrorism is also a direct challenge to APEC's vision of free, open and prosperous economies, and to the fundamental values that APEC members hold."

Laying stress on the U.N's role in this context, the document said: "Leaders deem it imperative to strengthen international cooperation at all levels in combating terrorism in a comprehensive manner and affirm that the U.N. should play a major role in this regard, especially taking into account the importance of all relevant U.N. resolutions."

U.S. President George Bush with his Chinese counterpart Jiang Zemin before the start of the APEC summit, on October 19.-KRAFT BROOKS/ GAMMA

It further said: "Leaders commit to prevent and suppress all forms of terrorist acts in the future in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and other international law, pledge to implement U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1368 and 1373 immediately, strongly support all efforts to strengthen the international anti-terrorism regime, call for increased cooperation to bring perpetrators to justice, and also call for early signing and ratification of all basic universal conventions including the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism."

"Leaders also pledge to cooperate fully to ensure that international terrorism does not disrupt economies and markets, through close communication and cooperation among economic policy and financial authorities," the statement added.

The APEC Economic Leaders' Declaration too made a specific reference to the issue. "We wish to send a clear and strong message on the collective resolve of the Asia-Pacific community to counter terrorism," it said.

PRESIDENT Bush came to Shanghai with the anti-terrorist agenda up front. The joint statement contained no reference to the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan - instead it called for a greater U.N. role in combating terrorism the world over.

He did secure a general condemnation of terrorism and specific backing for U.N. resolutions that call for specific anti-terrorist measures. But even these resolutions do not specifically refer to anti-terrorist targets.

China, Indonesia and Malaysia appear to have been the most concerned about the anti-terrorist agenda. They also appear to have been successful in taking the joint statement in a direction that could generate little domestic criticism.

Chinese spokesmen, briefing the huge press corps assembled in Shanghai, repeatedly stressed that there should be no "double standards" in addressing the issue of terrorism. About the Jiang-Putin meeting, the Xinhua news agency said: "Jiang said that a unanimous attitude and a sole standard should be adopted in fighting terrorism and that all forms of terrorism should be opposed and crushed... Both Presidents held that Chechnian and separatist-minded Eastern Turkestan terrorist forces are part of the global terrorism and should be firmly opposed and smashed."

In what appeared to be a response to this formulation, Bush said in Shanghai that the "war on terrorism must never be an excuse to persecute minorities". This showed that while the U.S. was willing to court China in the "global" battle against terror, it was not about to allow Beijing a free ride as far as a Chinese campaign against separatists in Xinjiang was concerned. The same possibly held good for the Russians in Chechnya.

A Chinese spokesperson made it clear that Bush had told Putin that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan would be "temporary". Given the present circumstances of the military campaign in Afghanistan, temporary can only have an elastic definition.

In China's view, the U.S. is a sudden gate-crasher into the Central Asian region, from where it wants to source its energy requirements without let or hindrance. The Chinese had taken the lead in the formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) this June, and have concerns about the long-term objectives of the U.S. in Central Asia. The exclusion of the U.S. from the SCO was a commentary on the U.S. disengagement from Central Asia. And, as was made clear by a declaration against terrorism, extremism and separatism, the SCO's concerns about these issues were very real.

But the September 11 attacks changed all that. There is little now doubt that Americans will remain in the region for a long time to come and have been busy building bridges with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, to name only two of the SCO members.

There is a new strategic dimension to the Chinese-Russian desire to have a "stable" Central Asia - namely, the U.S. The inability to predict the length and scope of the U.S. military operations in Afghanistan is obviously worrying countries like China.

In any case, China (much like Vietnam) hardly endorsed any U.S. action, and thereby creating a precedent for further such actions. So China continues to stress the U.N's role in anti-terrorist operations, the need to minimise civilian deaths and a quick transition from the military to the political phase in Afghanistan.

As far as APEC's economic agenda was concerned, the summit expectedly endorsed Western requirements for a new round of trade negotiations at a WTO ministerial meeting in Doha.

The APEC Leaders' Declaration said:

"We are determined to reverse the current economic downturn and maintain public confidence at a time of uncertainty by fighting protectionism and committing to the launch of a new WTO round at the upcoming WTO ministerial conference.

"We strongly support the launch of the new WTO round at the conference, recognising that the current slowdown in the world economy has added to its urgency. We agree that, once launched, the new round should be concluded expeditiously.

"We agree that the agenda for the new round should include further trade liberalisation, the strengthening of WTO rules, implementation issues, and reflect the interests and concerns of all members, especially those of the developing and least developed ones."

Further, the declaration applauded the "conclusion of all negotiations" for China's membership to the WTO as a "historic development" that not only helped make the WTO a truly world organisation but also underpinned global economic cooperation.

"We urge that the decision on final approval of China's accession should be taken at the upcoming ministerial conference. We also reiterate strong support for the final approval of the accession by Chinese Taipei at the conference and the advancement of WTO accession by the Russian Federation and Vietnam," the declaration added.

However, other than expressing concern about the general health of the world economy and endorsing a new trade round, there was little by way of addressing the obvious challenges to economic growth - which was obvious even before the September 11 attacks.

The APEC meetings took place in an atmosphere of unprecedented security. The international meeting took place because of the urgency with which President Bush has sought support for his anti-terrorist agenda and China's obvious desire to project itself during the meeting.

Many of those who were in Shanghai were first-time visitors to China. And, the Chinese put up a grand show. The massive fireworks display over the Huangpu river in Shanghai on October 21 was witnessed by all the 19 visiting heads of state, including Bush.

China, through APEC, signalled to the rest of the world that it was now a major player in the world economy - and that its cities and infrastructure were as good as those anywhere else. Domestically, the Chinese leadership was telling the people that China had "arrived" on the world scene.

For China, APEC was good news. It could have been better had the September 11 attacks and the retaliatory U.S. military strikes not deflected the focus from China as the latest showcase of economic growth.

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