APEC 2002: Americans Plot To Expand Crusade

Remember APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation)? Once described by former Australian foreign affairs minister Gareth Evans as “four adjectives in search of a noun”, it stumbled through the 1990s into the 21st century barely alive. Espousing “open regionalism” it extols a vision of open trade and investment across the Asia-Pacific region by 2010 for “developed member economies” and 2020 for “developing economies”.

Internal tensions among its 21 members combined with effective popular campaigns of opposition and delegitimisation across the region gave a taste of what was to come at the ill-fated Seattle WTO Ministerial. Divisions between APEC’s free marketeers like the USA, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, and the more pragmatic East Asian countries were unconvincingly papered over by ambiguously-worded official statements open to a number of interpretations. At face value, APEC commitments were often ambitious and went further than those made at the WTO, not least in the area of investment. Yet APEC’s lack of concrete achievement was as spectacular as the superlatives that once surrounded it.

Many of us fought it on the streets of Osaka, Manila, Vancouver, Kuala Lumpur, and Auckland where APEC’s annual extravaganza, the Economic Leaders’ Summit took place, accompanied by security crackdowns and human rights violations. In these yearly events, cocooned in luxury, ministers and heads of state (“economic leaders” in APECspeak) signed onto pre-scripted declarations urging speedier and more comprehensive liberalisation. Like so many other vehicles of the neoliberal agenda it meets behind closed doors. Neither a trade bloc nor a formal agreement, but a voluntary, non-binding process, relying largely on peer pressure, APEC’s commitments were never subject to Parliamentary scrutiny, let alone public debate.

Meanwhile we drew the links and connections between APEC, the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, the WTO, domestic economic reforms, and structural adjustment programmes. We exposed the corporate players involved with driving APEC, and attempts by APEC host governments to co-opt trade unions, NGOs and others in an attempt to legitimate its existence. We worked to delegitimise it and the free trade, free investment orthodoxy which it promoted. We targeted its lower-profile meetings of officials and ministers throughout the year. We highlighted the way in which it often acted as a forum in which to try to build agreement on contentious WTO issues and a spawning ground for binding bilateral trade and investment agreements. We watched as it went into virtual paralysis after the economic crisis swept across Asia in 1997, destroying APEC’s showcase East Asian “tiger” economies, and devastating millions of people’s lives. Its credibility in a downward spiral, journalists soon dubbed APEC “Ageing Politicians Exchanging Cocktails” or “A Perfect Excuse to Chat”.

Late last month, the 10th APEC Economic Leaders Summit limped into the exclusive Mexican holiday resort of Los Cabos on the Baja California peninsula. The venue had been chosen partly for its isolation to deter possible protests. Amid high security, with Mexican navy ships and a US Navy aircraft carrier not far away, such seclusion and opulence was symbolic of the way in which APEC has sought to insulate itself from the human and environmental consequences of the economic orthodoxy which it promotes.

APEC has always called itself a community of “economies”. This was supposedly to get around the thorny “3 China” issue of Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan all being members, but also conveniently served to exclude “non-economic” issues like poverty, environmental degradation, and people’s rights.

A year ago, during the 2001 APEC Summit in Shanghai, just prior to the Doha WTO Ministerial, we saw how this dying economic forum sought to revive its credibility and the free trade agenda by cashing in on September 11. It seemed that APEC had a new raison d’etre, thanks to the US successfully dominating the meeting.

Weeks earlier, in a Washington Post column entitled “Countering Terror With Trade”, (September 20 2001), US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick wrote: “America’s light and might emanate from our political, military and economic vitality. Our counteroffensive must advance US leadership across all these fronts.” In a world where we are told on a daily basis that we must either stand with George Bush or against him, free traders have cynically equated opposition to trade and investment liberalisation to support for “terrorism”. In the wake of rapidly growing opposition to neoliberal globalisation around the world, September 11 gave the cheerleaders for the global free market economy the chance they needed to counterattack. They are still doing it. We cannot let them keep getting away with it.

Besides its ritualistic reiteration of its support for the multilateral trade system under the WTO, and its 2010/2020 goals for open trade and investment in the region, APEC has become little more than A Platform for Escalating Conflict.

This year, Bush and Powell travelled to Los Cabos seeking to rally support for their latest planned strike against Iraq and stand against North Korea. Powell said that APEC nations needed to tighten security “to drive growth and generate prosperity…particularly our security from global terrorism.”

The APEC Economic Leaders’ Declaration which came out of Los Cabos this October 27th described terrorism as a “profound threat to our vision”. At the meeting, commitments were made to introduce tighter baggage screening in airports, improve coordination among immigration officials, implement new cybersecurity standards, and crack down on the financing of terrorism. A US-driven “APEC Leaders’ Statement on Fighting Terrorism and Promoting Growth” agreed that: “Terrorism is a direct challenge to APEC’s goals for free, open and prosperous economies and an affront to the fundamental values that APEC members share.” Whose goals and values exactly?

There are many forms of terror afoot in the world. The fist of the free market has long been used as an instrument of terror against hundreds of millions of people around the world. From NAFTA and the FTAA to Plan Colombia, from the US military recolonisation of the Philippines to its war against Iraq, the US Administration’s primary concern is making the world conform to its economic and political interests. Meanwhile the Bush administration has pushed the adage “do as we say and not as we do” to the limit with its tariffs on imported steel and massive increase in farm subsidies, while demanding that the rest of the world adopt free market policies and join its crusade against whoever are next deemed to be “evil ones”. Just as the mantras of economic growth and prosperity have been linked to rigid adherence to a discredited free market capitalist model, so too we are expected to believe that they also depend on obeisance to Bush’s self-styled war on terror.

“Building an APEC region – and a global economic system – that is both secure and more efficient is a monumental undertaking – and one that is critically important to the peace and prosperity of our planet”, continues the APEC Leaders’ Statement on Fighting Terror, Promoting Growth. At a time when the US is intent on expanding its war, such a statement seems Orwellian and obscene. Peace and prosperity for most of the world’s peoples seem a distant dream.

APEC goes back onto life support until resurfacing in Thailand next year. Meanwhile Mexico is preparing to host the 2003 WTO Ministerial in Cancun. The wordgames about terror and trade can only intensify over the next few months.

I well remember how the official statements from the September 1999 APEC Summit held in Auckland ignored the unfolding crisis in East Timor. After all its years of protestation that it is an economic forum and nothing but, the September 11 attacks and the Bali bombing are now deemed worthy of consideration at APEC. Indeed they have eclipsed other issues at the past two APEC Summits. Yet the ongoing and wanton destruction caused by the economic model which APEC helps to promote has unsurprisingly never made it onto the official agenda. If the APEC meeting can define these attacks as threats to free trade, we should not be afraid to denounce the structural adjustment, trade and investment liberalisation agenda for what it is – economic terror and imperialist domination.

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