Sartorial sabotage at Apec forum

Cracks begin to show in world leaders' polished presentation
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Each year at the end of their annual summit, the leaders of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) forum demonstrate their unity of purpose in a cute photo opportunity. After their final consultations, dedicated to free trade in Asia by2020, they caper for the cameras in the national costume of their host country.

In Indonesia in 1994, they dressed in batik shirts. Last year, in Osaka, they wore Japanese sports jackets. This year, in the Philippines, the 18 men, including President Bill Clinton, President Jiang Zemin of China, and the Japanese Prime Minister, Ryutaro Hashimoto, chose black trousers and traditional Filipino barong smocks. All except one. Alone among his peers, the trousers of the Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamed, were a delicate shade of grey.

This fashion detail was not a coincidence (Dr Mahathir pulled a similar trick with his batik shirt, which was subtly different from everyone else's). It was a tiny but calculated act of symbolic sabotage which epitomises the tensions at the heart of Apec. For all their enthusiastic expressions of consensus, the Apec leaders are far from united. And this year the gaps dividing them have been more obvious than ever.

Subic, the site of a former US naval base and the venue for this year's summit, was accessible only by boat or aircraft yesterday, the roads from Manila being blocked by demonstrators. Under the slogan "Junk Apec", left-wing groups harried the forum all week, accusing it of "service to a corporate agenda at the expense of the human rights, dignity and well- being of the peoples of this region".

The protesters believe free trade will make the rich richer, but do no favours for the poor. Although he would never admit it, they have an unlikely sympathiser in the authoritarian Dr Mahathir.

The focus of this year's negotiations was a proposed agreement on global trade in information technology (IT), four-fifths of which is conducted in Asia. For weeks before the summit, US officials were making it clear they expected a clear commitment on IT: across-the-board abolition of tariffs by 2000. In early drafts of the leaders' declaration, they appeared to have failed. But after personal lobbying by Mr Clinton, the final version promised to "substantially eliminate tariffs by the year 2000".

Hardly had the leaders changed out of their barongs, however, when the cracks began to show. "Substantially eliminate," explained the US trade spokesman, Jay Ziegler, "is tradespeak for zero". But within a few hours, Dr Mahathir was pooh-poohing the agreement. "If the US wants to reduce tariffs to zero, that's fine with us," he said. "We feel that if we're not ready, we will not have to submit to the deadline."

Beneath the fussy detail lies an intriguing philosophical conflict. Among Apec members, Dr Mahathir is the most aggressive apostle of "Asian values", a believer in strong government, social discipline, and a Confucian emphasis on hard work and hierarchy rather than on Western ideals of democracy and human rights. On a practical level, in common with the Filipino protesters, he is suspicious of Apec, fearing it could become a Trojan Horse for the domination of his country's markets by first world, US business.

Next year's summit will be held in Vancouver. The dress code has not yet been decided, but Apec watchers will be keeping a close eye on Dr Mahathir.