Batik Shirts and Trade At Asia-Pacific Forum

The 18 world leaders gathered in Indonesia for an APEC forum on world trade and investment do not comprise a group of similar or like-minded countries. WHAT'S APEC?

EIGHTEEN world leaders are meeting this week in a forum called APEC, an acronym for Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation. Indonesia's President Suharto, the host of the summit, is making his counterparts wear batik shirts and is stressing informality as they gather to discuss serious trade issues. The batik shirts are nice, but the event raises at least two inescapable questions:

1. So what?

2. And what is APEC, anyway?

The answer to the first question is that a lot of money and jobs are involved. Companies based in APEC's 18 countries are responsible for almost half of the world's exports - worth $1.7 trillion in 1993 - and more than half of the world's economic activity.

The leaders are in Indonesia to talk about making it easier to conduct trade and investment, which is supposed to increase the amount of economic activity. Manufacturers will have an easier time selling their products in foreign markets, enabling them to make more money that they will then use to build more factories and hire more workers. (Whether or not they will pay the workers more money isn't on the agenda at APEC.)

Deciphering APEC's evolving identity is a complex matter and a topic of constant debate in Jakarta. It helps to consider what APEC is not.

It is not a big faceless bureaucracy, not yet anyway. APEC's secretariat occupies one floor of an office building in Singapore and employs a mere 26 people. A diplomat from a big international organization was a little perplexed at the end of a recent tour of APEC's offices. ``Where's the rest of the bureaucracy?'' he asked, according to an APEC staffer.

APEC is also not propelling the economic activity in the Asia Pacific. ``The private sector ... has actually driven the interlinkages which are developing among the economies in trade and investment and technological exchange,'' says Tommy Koh, Singapore's former ambassador to the United Nations. ``The rapidity at which this is taking place is really astounding, and I think it's leaving governments behind. The governments are playing a catch-up game.''

United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher sees in APEC ``a momentum for a Pacific community of shared values, shared prosperity, shared security interests.'' But he may be overstating the case. APEC is not is a group of similar or like-minded countries. There is a tiny, oil-rich monarchy (Brunei) and the biggest country in the world still run by communists (China). There are the powerhouse economies of East Asia (Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan) and some less powerful ones (Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Thailand).

APEC includes some Asian countries populated mainly by Anglos (Australia, New Zealand), some non-Asian countries populated mainly by Caucasians (Canada, the US), and some non-Asian countries populated mainly by Latinos (Chile, Mexico).

All of this diversity leads to stunning differences in personal style among APEC participants. At a press conference this weekend Leslie McGraw, the head of Fluor Corporation, an Irvine, Calif. engineering firm, impatiently called for a rapid program of trade liberalization. ``Why wait?'' demanded Mr. McGraw, who chaired an APEC advisory group. ``Let's get on with it.''

Yesterday, South Korea's urbane and carefully spoken foreign minister, Han Sung Joo, said APEC's future course lay in ``harmonizing ... synchronizing ... [and] balancing'' the various interests and forces bearing on the organization.

Noting the cultural, economic, and political differences that separate APEC countries, one Asian diplomat closely involved in the organization concludes that ``APEC has no identity.'' Perhaps, but APEC participants are unified in the desire to spur the pace of economic growth. At its core, APEC is an idea: that freer trade will lead to more economic activity, benefiting all concerned.

Although they are hard to find at the summit, some Asian critics say that APEC as an institution has not adequately considered the impact of this rapid growth, particularly in developing countries. ``APEC is not just about trade and economic issues,'' says M.S. Zulkarnaen, an Indonesian environmental activist. ``Economic deregulation affects the lives of everyone: workers, women, indigenous peoples, farmers, consumers, among others. So far these have been ignored.''

Some critics note the decline of real incomes and the widening gaps between rich and poor in some of APEC's developing countries. Many of APEC's member countries have served as low-cost manufacturing bases for large, international corporations.

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