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Home Articles & Speeches Can APEC Rise to the Occasion? - The Wall Street Journal
Can APEC Rise to the Occasion? - The Wall Street Journal
Mr. Robert G. Lees
The Wall Street Journal
Monday, October 1, 2001

FOR THE PAST EIGHT YEARS, the president or the vice president of the United States has joined heads of state and government of 20 other Pacific Rim economies at the annual meeting of the world's most underappreciated international organizations, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. Or as former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans dubbed it, "four adjectives in search of a noun."

On Oct. 20-21, the leaders of the Pacific gather in Shanghai for this year's APEC summit. The potent assemblage will include U.S. President George W. Bush, Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, China's President Jiang Zemin and Russia's President Vladimir Putin. The new president of the world's most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia's Megawati Sukarnoputri, will be there as well.

In years past, this kind of critical mass came together repeatedly, yet never managed to start a chain reaction. APEC's most notable achievement to date is the establishment of a virtual target (it looks real, but lacks substance): the elimination of tariff barriers between APEC members by 2020. It is, however, an accomplishment largely devoid of meaning, owing to its lack of both enforcement and monitoring mechanisms and to the fact that the bulk of the scheduled tariff cutting has been deliberately backloaded. It was left up to the successors of Bill Clinton and his fellow summiteers to make good -- if they care to -- on the promises of APEC's earlier meeting.

And so the summiteers once again prepare for their annual gathering. But hold that yawn. This is no ordinary year. On the economic front, virtually all the world's major nations and trading blocs are either in recession or at its brink. The United States, the world's most consistently reliable economic engine, has been running out of steam. This has exacerbated Asia's already enormous problems, since the major economies of that region are so heavily tied to exports, the lion's share of which is destined for the U.S. market.

In Japan, which has been at an economic standstill since 1990, Mr. Koizumi has been saying all the right things, but it's an open question whether he can singlehandedly maneuver the country's political and bureaucratic elite into the painful reforms needed to get that economy growing again. Meanwhile, the only significant economy in the Pacific that is still expanding -- China's -- remains heavily dependent on exports, while the import power of the U.S., its biggest customer, is rapidly slackening.

Grim as this economic picture is, it was shoved brutally off the front page on Sept. 11 when terrorists turned four civilian airliners into flying bombs and extinguished the lives of more than 6,000 innocents, searing the indelible images into our minds. To the prospect of world-wide recession, we can therefore add the reality of a terrorist war on civilized nations. Not just on the United States and on individual liberties, but also on the global community and the global economy. At last count, buried or missing in the rubble of the World Trade Center's two collapsed towers are victims from approximately 80 nations, in addition to the U.S. These included more than 800 men and women from at least 15 other APEC economies.

The double blow of global recession and war with the terrorists is what could set the stage for an epochal summit in Shanghai. Here at last is the opportunity for the leaders of APEC to make a real difference. To do so, they must act on three fronts simultaneously and decisively:

They should announce coordinated economic stimulus programs. The threat of global recession requires a global response. If each nation goes its own way, at its own speed, in its own time, it will be a long, dismal recession as well as a widespread one. However, if we work in unison, we can accomplish great things. What better forum than APEC, and what better time than now, to set our shoulders to the wheel together.

The free trade and investment agenda is a cornerstone for economic growth, and APEC must demonstrate real progress and real commitment to this agenda in Shanghai. Critics have long bemoaned APEC's propensity to talk and study, rather than to act. Now is the time to act. Concrete actions toward the removal of trade and investment barriers must come out of the Shanghai meeting.

Our leaders should together set their shoulders to the wheel that will grind global terrorism into well-deserved dust. Little known to the larger world is that APEC has the ability through its existing subgroups to deal with such "hot" issues as border security, aviation safety and other matters of regional security, including money laundering and other financial crimes. APEC was never intended to be a political forum. But the terrorist threat has assumed such extraordinary proportions -- nuclear, chemical and biological weapons could, for example, easily be next on the nihilists' agenda -- that extraordinary action is called for. If we don't think outside the box, we may wind up inside one. This is the time for the leaders of the APEC-member nations to move forward together to deal with this urgent problem.

The times, it has been said, make the man. Perhaps they can "make" an organization, too. Here's hoping that in Shanghai the leaders of APEC can breathe new life into this organization -- and new hope into people not just across the Pacific but around the globe.

Mr. Lees is secretary general of the Honolulu-based Pacific Basin Economic Council (www.pbec.org), an association of senior business leaders representing more than 1,000 major corporations in 20 Pacific economies.