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Monday, Nov. 27, 2006


The importance of being ambiguous at APEC

APEC stands for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. A strange name. Neither a committee nor a council, not even a commission -- just "cooperation."

It sounds more like unfinished business than a group of 21 nation states. The word forum is usually stuck behind the four letters to give it a more commu- nal flavor. Founded in 1989, the APEC "forum" met for its 18th annual meeting in Hanoi from Nov. 18 to 19.

Whether intentional or not, the best thing about APEC is actually its wishy-washy name.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would no doubt appreciate the ambiguity. Ambiguity is evasion -- there is no escaping the fact. Yet, unlike Abe's version, which so smacks of an attempt to hide what is going on behind a curtain of vagueness, the ambiguity in the APEC nomenclature provides maneuvering room in which people can talk about trade liberalization without actually having to negotiate it.

As the APEC Web site proudly proclaims, the group is "unique in that it represents the only intergovernmental grouping in the world committed to reducing trade barriers and increasing investments without requiring its members to enter into legally binding obligations."

One might well ask what conceivable point can there be in backing an intergovernmental group that obliges nobody to do anything?

Yet if orchestrated with finesse, this could be the next best thing to natural harmony.

People who manage to cooperate with each other without rules and obligations are surely nice people. People who commit themselves to free and open trade without engaging in horse-trading have to be generous as well as courageous. People like these are more likely to make the world a better place than those who are forever in search of strict reciprocity.

In this respect, the word "cooperation" left hanging so ambivalently at the end of APEC's name has always looked like a ray of hope, one signifying that a better world populated by nicer people was perhaps not altogether cloud-cuckoo-land.

Until APEC's latest annual meeting, that is.

What emerged from Hanoi was somewhat alarming for two reasons: One, it looked as though the politicization of APEC meetings had reached a new high. To be sure, recent events were bound to make this happen. With the North Korean issue becoming something of a sword of Damocles for all concerned, it was only natural for the issue to overshadow any discussions of economic cooperation.

All the same, the jostling for position and the search for friends and potential foes over the issue looked unworthy of this gathering, in which the spirit of spontaneous and nonimposed cooperation was supposedly the key concept.

The other and actually even more worrying point was the United States proposal for a free-trade area in the Asia-Pacific that was thrown out at the meeting, and the responses this move elicited from the other members.

The term "free-trade area" is essentially a misnomer -- or more precisely, a euphemism for preferential trading blocs. Not so if they are sufficiently large, some may argue. Yet if that were the case, the best possible free-trade area would be a global one. That being so, there would be no need to create either a specifically Asia-Pacific one or a specifically Americas-oriented one.

If the aim is to create a free-trade area large enough to accommodate everyone, well then that is precisely what the WTO is mandated to achieve.

The idea that stringing together a multitude of bilateral trade agreements will lead to freer trade on a global scale is an illusion at best. It is time for APEC to return to its wishy-washy roots.

Noriko Hama is an economist and a professor at Doshisha University Graduate School of Business.

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