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Thursday, Oct. 30, 2003

Style trumps substance in Bangkok

Special to The Japan Times

BANGKOK -- The appearance of the 21 leaders of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in their handmade shiny silk shirts said a lot about this year's summit in Bangkok -- style over substance.

Every year, of course, the leaders of more than half the world's population strut the final APEC stage as fashion model manques, wearing clothing that highlights their host-nation's culture. This time Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand's prime minister and party host, outdid himself and all his predecessors. The shirts, made from Thailand's signature silk, were decorated with embroidered silk thread showing mythical animals (or flowers in the case of leaders from Muslim countries). Each shirt took five weavers a month each to weave the special material and they were reckoned to cost 90,000 baht each or $2,250 -- more than a year's income for an average Thai.

The shirts were over the top, as were all too many aspects of the APEC summit. It was a public-relations extravaganza for the benefit of Thailand and Thaksin.

The business end of the summit was notable only for its lack of achievement. Trade did figure in the final communique, however, with pious wishes that the failed talks in Cancun, Mexico, be reopened. Thaksin clearly wanted to be heralded as savior of the Doha round.

But, like the famous dog that didn't bark, discussions about trade in Bangkok were overshadowed by the guest who was not invited. The Cancun trade talks were held under the auspices of the World Trade Organization. Normally the head of the WTO gets invited to APEC summits. It so happens that the current head of the WTO is Supachai Panitchpakdi, a Thai. You might have thought that the Bangkok summit was a superb place to get the WTO talks on track again, given the presence of all the leading players except the European Union. Thaksin could have played the grand role of facilitator. But Supachai -- Thaksin's political rival -- was not invited to the Bangkok summit. Ludicrously, one Thai newspaper claimed that the government had said it did not know where to find Supachai.

The APEC chief executive summit, running concurrently with the main event in Bangkok, knew how to find the WTO head. Supachai was one of the main speakers at its second session, just after Thaksin himself had opened the gathering. The prime minister did not stay to hear Supachai deliver one of the best speeches of the various Bangkok meetings, which included a quietly impassioned warning that the world, and particularly poor countries, would suffer if the Doha round did not reach a successful conclusion.

Supachai's speech was delivered from notes, a great achievement but one with its own perils. No text was available. The speech was not put out by the WTO; nor was there any reference to it on the Internet search-engine Google several days later. It was apparently beyond the wit of the APEC chief executive summit to record it and put out a transcript.

This is a pity because Supachai cautioned against the proliferation of bilateral free-trade agreements as a dangerous distraction from the prime need to restart the multilateral WTO, where the benefits are spread to all members. He feared that bilateral deals might waste energies and produce agreements that could run counter to multilateral obligations.

Thaksin himself might have benefited from those cautionary words. At the summit's concluding press conference, he was robustly pro-WTO, saying, "We would like to send a political signal, clearly and loudly, that we need to press ahead with the Doha agenda." But taking advantage of the host's privileges, Thaksin was also busy trying to tie up bilateral trade deals with the United States, Peru, Australia and New Zealand.

To his credit Thaksin did make a brave effort to advance the APEC free-trade agenda from 2020 -- when there will be few of today's leaders around -- to 2015, but only Singapore expressed a positive interest.

The problem is that the APEC countries are so varied in character and stages of development -- ranging from the U.S. and Japan, which have the problems of developed economies and heavily subsidized agricultural sectors, through the rapidly industrializing Southeast Asian economies, and to the potential biggest giant of all, China.

Out on a limb are Australia, New Zealand, Peru and Chile, making it difficult to put the region together as a coherent whole. Europe's progress has been slow enough, but European nations have many common interests that make it easy compared with the sprawling APEC.

Such difficulties have led the annual get-together to develop into an exercise in grandstanding for domestic political purposes rather than an opportunity to do serious business. After all, with only 36 hours to talk in Bangkok -- and much of that devoted to watching the royal barges, banqueting and showing off the silk shirts -- leaders had little time to do much more than sign on to a communique that officials had worked out in advance.

This impression is confirmed by newspaper coverage in APEC member countries, most of which devote their coverage to their own leader. There was little pan-APEC coverage and little analysis of the summit.

It may be churlish when terrorist threats are heavy in the air to criticize the heavy hand of security at the summit, but it is legitimate to ask whether the 21 leaders repaid all the disruption to millions of lives that their presence caused.

Supachai made a good point in recalling the first APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting in 1993, when U.S. President Bill Clinton chose the wilds of Seattle as the location. Then, Supachai said, the leaders ate simple but healthy Indian food, with lots of local salmon. More to the point, the absence of all the ballyhoo and grandstanding meant that the leaders could actually talk together and provide a new thrust to the then-stalled Uruguay round of trade talks.

But at least Thaksin could stand tall among the leaders of the world.

Kevin Rafferty is a former editor in chief of Business Day newspaper in Bangkok.

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