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David Miller Online: The Challenges for APEC

David Miller Online

The Challenges for APEC

This year’s APEC summit has been held at a time of uncertainty, division, tension and yet optimism for the organisation. It has commenced as members individually, or as part of smaller localised bloc, seek to promote different agendas, resolve tensions with rival governments or to re-assure allies of their support and friendship. As George W. Bush has tried to make fellow APEC leaders aware of the growing threat from nuclear proliferation, China has been busy securing agreements for the supply of raw materials to its booming economy. Meanwhile, Japan continues to grapple with the dilemma over the role its armed forces can play in world affairs. Somewhere in the midst of all this, Helen Clark has tried to remind everyone that New Zealand still exists, hence the question arises as to what does the future hold for APEC?

Since 1945, the world has witnessed the emergence of numerous blocs and alliances. These have been built along regional or economic lines and often larger groupings overlay smaller, more exclusive clubs. The most notable examples are the European Union and the G-8. There is also the Organisation of African States, the Gulf Co-Operation Council, the Arab League and ASEAN. APEC is perhaps the most unique of all groupings as it covers such a large area of the globe and brings together so many different countries who frequently compete for territory, economic power and maintain systems of government. For example, there are unresolved issues within the East Asian community, let alone, its relations with Washington. Japan has not resolved its historical disputes and unease with near neighbours, especially its role during the Second World War while China is viewed with suspicion throughout the south-eastern Asian rim over its claims to territory such as the Spratly Islands and its ongoing military expansion. Then of course, there is Australia’s fear over terrorism along its northern perimeter.

The most striking feature of this summit is that it reaffirmed China’s emergence as a superpower, especially its economic might. The prospect of China developing in such a fashion was an obsession for those who studied or worked in the field of Asian affairs throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s. Yet, the war on terrorism, the invasion of Iraq and the policies of the Bush Administration took everyone’s eye of the ball. In the past 4 years, Pax Americana has dominated the international landscape and the growing power of China and its Asian neighbours has been submerged beneath this issue. China is now the leading trading partner for South America. While President Bush has been banging his drum over the dangers of Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programmes and the need for greater regional security, President Hu quietly secured agreement with the leading South American states for raw materials and increased trade. One cannot escape the feeling that although Mr. Bush made the most noise, the Chinese were the real winners at these talks.

This APEC summit demonstrated a real cleavage within its membership that has always been there but not quite so visible. After all, APEC is a collective of states and not a union as is the case with Europe. As the US and Australia promote security and military issues, others seek to build economic alliances. The two are not mutually exclusive, however one cannot be committed to one path while gaining the maximum benefit from the other. China has been very quiet over the war in Iraq yet it is doubtful that it will ever truly support such a venture and it is likely that seeing the Americans so over-stretched throughout the world and not making friends suits them down the ground. They have cleverly remained focused on their economy and have steered clear of any debate on the military or territory dispute. The question for New Zealand is which path do we follow and which element to this alliance will benefit us in the long term. If we are uneasy about following Washington’s lead and course then we must hope that Ms. Clark made a good impression with the Chinese and Asian leaders.


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