From Botany Bay to Guantanamo Bay
The Asia-Pacific region tries to rebuild confidence by sowing confusion over Osama bin Laden and the war on terror, writes Gamal Nkrumah
Click to view caption|
US President Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shake hands during their bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the APEC forum
The Pacific Ocean Rim is an endless land of scattered riches and infinite cultural variety encompassing two continents -- Asia and the Americas -- or four if one designates North and South America, Asia proper and Australia. The sprawling Asia-Pacific region, which has been growing at its fastest since the dreaded Asian financial crisis of 1997, is an area where the world's most sophisticated trade mechanisms flourish. Be that as it may, it is invariably difficult to draw a definite line that separates economics from politics -- especially when the leading nations of the region are poles apart ideologically. Geopolitical realities and historical legacies are taken seriously into consideration when assessing the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. APEC nations account for no less than half of global trade, 60 per cent of the global gross domestic product, and they include the world's three largest economies -- the United States, Japan and China.
Business might come first at APEC summit meetings, but there was plenty of buzz at this year's gathering in Australia's premier metropolis Sydney. So why all the gripes and grumbles?
This is an interim time of great confusion as far as the Asia-Pacific region is concerned. Drama was played out at APEC 2007, and as certain nations wax wealthier, the fortunes of others have waned. There were scares and near misses. The Chasers (an ensemble of Australian comedians) performed a motorcade stunt, penetrating the APEC 2007 security zone in the heart of Sydney and coming within 10 metres of the InterContinental Hotel where US President George W Bush reposed, after a lightning trip to Iraq.
Much to the chagrin and horror of APEC leaders, Chas Licciardello masqueraded as Osama bin Laden -- the unmistakable resemblance was hilarious. The "pranksters" were "aiming to humiliate a lot of well known people", the visibly furious Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer fumed. After all, the security preparations for the APEC 2007 summit cost the Australian government some $250 million. A 5km concrete and steel security fence, which cost the Australian taxpayer $270 million, was hastily constructed. Australia, with a sizeable Muslim minority, and the most populous Muslim nation on earth (Indonesia) at its doorstep, feels especially vulnerable to militant Islamist "terrorism".
Sniffing out business in the region is easy, but pinning down US President Bush was not quite a walkover. He was taken by surprise with the impromptu television appearance of Al-Qaeda leader Bin Laden's fire and brimstone. "I invite you to embrace Islam," Bin Laden declared on a widely-publicised videotape ahead of the sixth anniversary of 9/11. He appeared healthy-looking, as charismatic as ever and sporting a trim beard, dyed jet black.
Bin Laden, true to form, did not mince his words. "As soon as the warmongering owners of the major corporations realise that you have lost confidence in your democratic system and have begun to look for an alternative, and this alternative is Islam, [they will] steer you away from Islam," Bin Laden concluded.
This said, Bush cut short his participation at the APEC summit to return home and dream up a White House report on the war in Iraq. "I will lay out a vision for future involvement in Iraq," Bush explained. Yes, dream on, President Bush. The tragedy is that his dreams metamorphose into nightmares for innocent Iraqi civilians.
Moreover, the last minute scheduled change exacerbated Asian concerns that the US is consumed with the war on terrorism and the possible partial withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.
The sad reality is that because of Bush's bungles in Iraq and Afghanistan, America's Asian allies are not getting a fair whack, or so they believe.
The White House has only come up with lame excuses to give for its poor performance at such an august gathering in Sydney. The question is how to make the APEC summit's communiqués count. The resolutions were predictable enough. The emphasis on reviving the Doha Round of World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks stalled for six years now was long overdue, the leaders of APEC stressed.
Massive agricultural subsidies to farmers in wealthy countries especially the US and the European Union constitute an enormous problem for the WTO. Restrictive industrial tariffs in emerging markets like Brazil, China and India are considered by many as another WTO challenge.
"There is a strong sense that it is a make-or- break moment. It may take a few weeks, but my sense is that there is a lot of focus and energy," the WTO head Pascal Lamy told reporters in Sydney. The WTO negotiations resumes later this month.
Not to be outdone, US Trade Representative Susan Schwab underlined the importance of APEC 2007 as a prelude to wider trade forums. "We've used our free trade agreements in many cases to try out approaches to trade facilitation that perhaps later can be transferred into a multilateral venue. It is a way of trying out concepts," Schwab explained.
Environmental issues also cropped up at APEC 2007. Indeed, APEC member states are also among the world's worst polluters, with the greatest greenhouse emissions. Members like Australia, China and the US have persistently refused to sign the Kyoto Protocols. Indeed, some of the most economically dynamic nations of the region are the worst culprits. Cash-rich Chinese companies are looking to make acquisitions that could book them further revenues, with no thought whatsoever for pollution. Indeed, China and the US are the two most polluting nations in the world.
Chinese President Hu Jintao was applauded in his country for his performance at Sydney. Russian President Vladimir Putin, too, was a star at Sydney, urging APEC to kick-start global negotiations.
Chinese and Russian companies are currently giving their American and Japanese rivals a run for their money. With the energy-hungry booming economies of APEC, the big pay-off for Russian oil conglomerates is not far off. Gazprom Deputy Chairman Alexander Medvedev was in Sydney to clinch some lucrative deals.
Not all workers in APEC are equal, though. Chinese labour is far cheaper than either American or Japanese labour. However, the cheaper still Indian labour was left out of APEC altogether. APEC leaders decided against the expansion of membership of the organisation.
Significantly, though, India was the focus of trilateral talks between Australia, Japan and the US in Sydney. The Chinese, understandably, were miffed. "There was a lot of discussion about India, a lot of optimism about India, the importance of strengthening our relations with India," Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer disclosed. "There is a recognition now that India is a coming great power."
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is making a pitch for APEC membership. This will be the work of at least a generation. India is among 11 applicants for APEC membership. If India joins APEC, that would irreversibly change the face of the economic grouping.
India may have lost its APEC membership bid, but Bush lost his pebbles again. Indeed, eyebrows were raised when he mistakenly called his Australian hosts "Austrians". He also mistook APEC for OPEC. Nobody bothered to talk themselves into a fight with Bush. Who wants a lame duck snapping at you?