Asia's big players in search of harmony

The Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation forum (Apec), which reaches its annual climax in Manila this weekend is one of the most diverse, visionary and gimmick-laden international get-togethers in the world. Over the next three days, in central Manila and the former US Navy base in Subic, eight prime ministers, seven presidents, and a sultan will take part in carefully engineered larks, photo opportunities and publicity stunts.

The leaders, including Bill Clinton, China's President Jiang Jemin, and Japan's Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, will bury a time capsule containing their sentiments on Asia-Pacific co-operation and put on a fancy dress parade for the cameras in traditional Filipino costume. Yesterday a purpose built "Apec Sculpture Garden" was dedicated. The forum has its own T-shirts, and even an Apec hymn.

Aside from fripperies they will, if all goes to plan, take steps to consolidate an economic organisation so powerful that it may one day make the EU look like a minor global player.

Apec was founded in 1989 and now has 18 members, including the seven countries of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean), Japan, China and the United States. Up close, the European comparison is misleading. For a start, there is Apec's size: between them, the 18 members possess a combined GNP of thirteen trillion dollars, half the world's total output, in its most rapidly expanding region. But in tone and method, the defining characteristics of Apec are almost diametrically opposed to those of the EU.

In place of squabbling, there appears to harmony; instead of rules, consensus. Officially at least, the member countries reject any suggestion of co- ordinated policy on security or diplomacy. Apec has one clear ambition, but it is characteristically ill-defined. By 2010 for advanced countries, or 2020 for developing economies, members will achieve free trade - although without a clear definition of what constitutes advanced or developing, it remains a distant, flexible goal.

There are no quotas; instead, each November, Apec governments present a series of "individual action plans" which are blended into a statement issued by the host leader. Peer pressure and the good example of neighbouring nations will, the theory goes, encourage slackers and keep reform going.

In previous summits, like the one last year in Osaka, this worked: the final declaration was vague enoughto provide a semblance of progress.This year looks a little different and the biggest difference is the venue.

Despite recent signs of a boom, the Philippines is still one of Apec's poorest members. The President insisted in his opening speech yesterday that Apec will help everyone "not only the big players". But not all President Ramos's countrymen agree: left-wing groups insist the free flow of capital will enrich the advanced economies at the expense of the Filipino poor, and there were noisy demonstrations outside the Philippines International Conference Centre in Manila yesterday.

The truth is that the ostentatious displays of harmony and good cheer are a mask, an attempt to cover up the region's deep and potentially explosive divisions. In Korea, the fragile nuclear accord reached with the government of the rogue North is in danger of breaking down. Peking and Washington, meanwhile, are tentatively mending relations after the Taiwan crisis last year. For Apec nations, with all their diversity, inequality, and tensions, superficial jolliness is essential, not an option - a hopeful expression of a harmony which in fact is decades away.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Health & Safety Consultant

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic and exciting opport...

Recruitment Genius: Project and Quality Manager

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is an independent ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Sales Executive - OTE £20,625

£14625 - £20625 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This role is for an enthusiasti...

Guru Careers: Financial Controller

£45 - £55k DOE: Guru Careers: A Financial Controller is required to join a suc...

Day In a Page

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Attwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
10 best waterproof mascaras

Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'