Asia’s hotel lobby

With Vietnam set to host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit next weekend, a recent spate of news suggests that it will be a busy weekend…but not necessarily because of what’s on the official agenda.

While this year’s formal agenda will consist of the usual calls for greater openness among APEC members and a push to restart the World Trade Organization’s Doha round — not to mention the always hilarious picture of heads of state and government in the host nation’s national costume (click here for last year’s, held in South Korea) — the talks on the sidelines of the summit will be much more interesting, and will likely provide the lion’s share of headlines:

The FT reports that the US and Russia will ink a deal in Hanoi on Russia’s joining the WTO.

The Yomiuri Shimbun reports that President Bush will meet Prime Minister Abe for the first time, with Secretary of Rice and Foreign Minister Aso also in attendance. The agenda will, of course, focus on the response to North Korea’s nuclear test. Both leaders and their subordinates will meet with their Chinese, Russia, and South Korean counterparts during the week to continue preparations for the forthcoming reopening of the six party talks (see here).

The Korean Herald reports that the US might even hold lower-level talks with North Korea, which, for the record, is not an APEC member.

This confirms what I’ve always felt about APEC: it is far too broad to be the source of any kind of groundbreaking agreement that could lead to the creation of some kind of deeply integrated Asia-Pacific politico-economic space. APEC members come from five continents (if you count Russia as European, and you should), have a variety of political system and cultures, and a vastly disparate range of interests. This is not a forum designed to produce a highly detailed, comprehensive program for integration.

At the same time, however — and hence the title of this post — it is incredibly useful in providing a space for leaders to talk face to face, and yes, wear clothes that make them look downright silly. (Seriously though, look at pictures from recent years: I personally find Bush, Mexico’s Vincente Fox, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin to be the most humorous year after year.) APEC might provide some steps in the direction of more open trade among members, but it’s at its best when it acts as a vast hotel lobby in which the region’s leaders can tuck off to the side and discuss what’s most important to them. It is an overwhelming enough event that quiet talks could slip under the radar screen (i.e., between the US and North Korea).

It’s hard to complain about APEC. It keeps the region’s leaders talking face to face and it reminds the world of the inevitable shift to the Pacific already underway in the global economy.

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