To GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) and even one previous APEC (Atlantic Provinces Economic Council), add yet another set of capitals: Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC). If that acronym appears more descriptive of a mood than an organization, it is in keeping with the rest of the four-year-old group’s approach to English. APEC’s 15 members, including Canada, the United States, Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Australia, are known as “economies,” rather than nations, in deference to the uncertain status of Hong Kong and Taiwan. A September gathering of APEC trade officials was not a meeting, but a “ministerial.” Still, in a world of rapidly evolving international trade associations, APEC has quickly assumed critical importance.
The group has its origins in the 1980s. That decade saw a number of Asian nations, led by China, abandon centrally planned economies in favor of trade liberalization and open markets. In 1989, trade ministers from the APEC “economies” met for the first time. Their goals: to show support for the current round of GATT negotiations seeking freer world trade and to discuss trade and economic is-
sues of common concern. As the negotiations aimed at expanding GATT have sputtered, however, APEC has gained strength. And the attendance of President Bill Clinton, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and government leaders from a dozen other states at last week’s summit in Seattle signalled APEC’s stature as a major forum.
APEC remains, however, largely a high-level talking shop, where not all the participants share the same agenda. Although its members last week added a committee on international trade and investment rules to 10 other working groups on various issues, Hong Kong trade secretary Chau Tak-Hay made it clear that the talks would be “consultative” rather than decision-making. Malaysian president Mahathir Mohamad boycotted the Seattle meeting to signal opposition to suggestions that APEC should evolve into a free trade zone.
But such doubts have done nothing to discourage potential new members. Last week, APEC accepted Mexico and Papua New Guinea as member economies and Chile will join in 1994. In fact, APEC’s member nations, representing more than 2 billion people, currently account for half of the world’s economic production and 40 per cent of its trade. By any acronym, that makes it a force to reckon with.
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