Apec begins to flex its economic muscles: Asian-Pacific leaders agree on need to reach Gatt accord but US and China remain far apart on trade and human rights

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The Independent Online
'THE meeting is the message' had become an overworked expression by the time President Bill Clinton and other Pacific leaders left Seattle at the weekend. It was employed before as well as after their informal get-together on an island in Puget Sound, and was resorted to by the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, to describe Mr Clinton's bilateral talks with President Jiang Zemin of China.

But the phrase was not completely without meaning. Before last week the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum was known to scarcely anyone, even in the economies belonging to it. President Clinton's idea of inviting heads of government to join him in the Pacific north-west has given the world a new acronym, Apec, and brought home to others - not least in Europe - the huge economic power represented by those four letters.

The 15 members of the forum, with Mexico, Papua New Guinea and Chile due to be added by next year's meeting, account for more than half the world's economic output and two-fifths of its trade. Their unequivocal call for the Uruguay Round of the Gatt trade talks to be completed by the 15 December deadline - the one tangible outcome of the gathering - will be impossible to ignore.

There were warnings that Asian leaders would be uncomfortable with the notion of having to talk without a script at the informal meeting on Blake Island. But by all accounts they relaxed and began to engage in a genuine exchange of ideas. Despite resistance to creating a formal structure out of Apec, proposals to convene a meeting of finance ministers and to increase the involvement of the private sector were accepted.

There had never been such a meeting of Asia-Pacific heads of government before, and one thing unanimously agreed was to do the same again next year in Indonesia. Mr Clinton, who arrived in Seattle high on his success in Congress with the North American Free Trade Agreement vote, was still euphoric as he bid goodbye to his colleagues. This may account for a subsequent gaffe. In a speech just before his departure, he referred to the 1989 massacre of hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators in Peking as 'the unfortunate incidents at Tiananmen Square'. It sounded like the dismissive language the Chinese authorities use, and is unlikely to be forgiven by their opponents.

If Mr Clinton's breezy approach eventually won over his fellow leaders in the Apec context, it got him nowhere in his meeting with Mr Jiang. The first Sino-American summit since Tiananmen achieved nothing, in public at any rate, beyond emphasising how sharply and on how many issues the two powers are opposed. The American side took refuge in saying that there was at least 'engagement', but officials added that the Chinese president spent 15 minutes reading Mr Clinton a prepared statement on non-interference in the affairs of another sovereign country.

The Chinese side had the benefit of hearing from the American leader's own lips what the United States is demanding of Peking, something that has not always been clear. Washington wants China to open its markets - the chief American trade negotiator, Mickey Kantor, said the Chinese trade surplus with the US this year could reach dollars 23bn, the second biggest after Japan, which he described as 'politically and economically unacceptable'.

The US also wants China to stop weapons exports to unstable Third World countries. While Peking is probably willing to bargain on these issues, and was said to have been helpful on the question of North Korea's nuclear threat, every Chinese spokesman here has expressed resistance to the main element of American policy: the insistence on linking human rights concessions to the renewal of China's Most Favoured Nation trading privileges next year.

Not only has Mr Clinton listed areas in which there should be improvements, including the release of political prisoners and negotiations with the Dalai Lama on Tibet, but he and Mr Christopher have emphasised that movement must take place soon, rather than just before next May's deadline.

It was never likely that China would respond positively in Seattle. Its attitude will probably not become clear until the leadership, possibly including Deng Xiaoping, the country's 89-year-old supreme leader, has considered the issue back in Peking. But the difference in outlook between the two Security Council powers in Apec is one main reason why talk of the US turning away from Europe and towards Asia may be somewhat premature.

In his farewell speech Mr Clinton said there were no longer clear dividing lines between defence and economic policy: survival meant successful competition in the world marketplace. The balance of economic power is shifting all the time towards the Pacific, and it is inevitable that, while American hearts may remain with Europe, self-interest will dictate that more attention is given to the region where the money is.

One Chinese statement that Mr Clinton and everyone else at the Apec meeting would endorse is Mr Deng's celebrated dictum: 'It is glorious to get rich.'

(Photograph omitted)