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.