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?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones