Apec meet turns into the Bin Laden, Kim Jong-Il show

Apec meet turns into the Bin Laden, Kim Jong-Il show

It’s hard to say who’s less happy about last weekend’s summit of Asia-Pacific leaders in Sydney—John Howard or George W. Bush. The Australian Prime Minister saw it as a chance to showcase his global clout ahead of an election this year. The US President viewed it as an opportunity to argue things are looking up in his war against terrorism. Both men saw their hopes dashed.

Headlines focused on a humiliating security breach involving TV comedians—one of whom dressed up like Osama bin Laden. Their fake motorcade got within 10m of the hotel at which Bush and 19 other visiting leaders attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum were staying. Bush’s agenda, meanwhile, was hijacked by the real bin Laden, assisted by Kim Jong-Il. A video said to contain a bin Laden message coinciding with the sixth anniversary of the 11 September attacks also dominated the Apec news cycle.

Disagreements were another highlight of the summit. And the extent to which North Korean leader Kim scuttled Apec’s goals is noteworthy. Howard hoped to win backing for a pact setting specific targets for curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Others wanted concerted action on the worsening global credit crunch. None of it happened. All this won’t help Apec’s image as an increasingly pointless talkfest, more about photo ops than cooperation. What Apec did was remind us of the growing lame-duck dynamic coursing through some of the world’s most important economies.

Lame ducks

If ever there were a lame-duck summit, this year’s Apec event was it. Four of the leaders most in the spotlight—Howard, Bush, Shinzo Abe of Japan and Roh Moo Hyun of South Korea—all seem on the way out. That leads to an intriguing irony: the reign of both Kim and bin Laden will very likely outlive key Asia-Pacific leaders. Howard, for example, has seen his support rate dwindle. Timing is everything in politics and Howard probably regrets not holding the contest earlier—when all was dandy in Australia. Instead, the economy’s prospects have darkened amid interest rate hikes and turmoil in global credit markets. Bush arguably offered the most animated Apec quote. He told Australia’s deputy prime minister, Mark Vaile, “we’re kicking ass" in Iraq, according to Sydney Morning Herald. Enthusiasm aside, Bush will be replaced in next year’s presidential election. Before then, he’ll be too preoccupied with Iraq and probes into his administration to work much with Asia-Pacific peers. Negotiating trade deals is a luxury for which he won’t have time.

Abe’s woes

Abe also could be on his way out. It’s unclear how long he’ll survive his party’s humiliating July election defeat in Japan’s upper house. A recent cabinet reshuffle did little to boost his support rate. Even if Abe does hang on, his legislative prospects are grim. Roh provided one of the most memorable moments in Sydney when he challenged Bush to declare a formal end to the Korean war. Bush retorted that North Korea must first give up its nuclear weapons programme. Even so, South Koreans will elect a new president in December, leaving Roh little clout.

The problem with all this is that there are some heavy issues Apec leaders should be discussing. They range from the fallout from the US subprime loan crisis to Asia’s currency reserve bubble to climate change to more efficient use of energy to reducing poverty to eliminating barriers to trade. Each of these vital topics got short shrift.

Trade pipe dreams

Apec seems an ideal framework to bring a disparate number of economies together. Its members account for nearly 60% of global output, almost 50% of trade and about 40% of the world’s population. Apec’s reach will increase once India and Pakistan are allowed to join the fold.

An Apec-wide free trade agreement could go a long way towards levelling the global playing field. And yet, that’s but a pipe dream. China becoming an ever more vocal member of Apec changes the calculus even further. Chinese President Hu Jintao pointedly told rich nations to “take the lead" in cutting greenhouse gas emissions. That led to watered-down Apec goals to combat climate change.

Perhaps seeing the writing on Australia’s political wall, Hu even invited Kevin Rudd, the opposition party leader polls say will win this year’s election, and his family to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Howard couldn’t have been happy.

Opec, er, Apec

Bush had some uncomfortable moments, too—like when he thanked “Austrian" leader Howard for being a cordial “Opec" host. The exchange with Roh spoke as to how dissatisfied many Asians are with Bush’s handling of the North Korea issue. There also was a delicious bit of irony in the lame-duck leaders of Australia, Japan and the US engaging in a trilateral summit on the sidelines of the Apec meet. Excluded powers such as China and Russia can take heart in knowing that neither Howard nor Bush nor Abe will matter much longer. Bin Laden and Kim will.

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