Here's a recent newspaper article I wrote in connection with my work.
"The Road to Bogor: Thailand and APEC's Quest for Prosperity in the Asia-Pacific"
By Jakkrit Srivali, Bangkok Post, 25 May 2003
"You can always tell first-timers to APEC," said my veteran colleague. "They're the ones wearing the neckties."
I fidgeted with my Jim Thompson tie but decided against taking it off right there. It was mid-February in Chiang Rai, Thailand's northernmost province, and the weather was still chilly enough, at least by Thai standards, to pretend that the tie was of some functional value.
As I soon discovered, APEC is a remarkably informal and collegial process. At the First Senior Officials' Meeting (SOM I) in Chiang Rai, shirtsleeves and slacks were the order of the day. Despite the relaxed atmosphere and easy camaraderie, however, serious work was being done to move Asia-Pacific economic cooperation forward.
That work will continue at the SOM II and related meetings in Khon Kaen during 21-30 May. The city that is home to some of Thailand's greatest athletes has spared no effort to show that it is no slouch either when it comes to hospitality. On the substantive side, discussions will range from such bread-and-butter issues as trade and investment, economic and technical cooperation, to such arcane subjects as invasive alien species.
And while Thailand has been recognized by the World Health Organization as free from local transmission of SARS, the Thai government is taking no chances. Measures will be in place to ensure the safety and comfort of delegates as well as the general public.
APEC, which stands for Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, began life in 1989 as a forum for informal consultation and dialogue. Initially conducted at the level of ministers and government officials, APEC was given a political shot in the arm in 1993, when then US President Bill Clinton decided to convene the first APEC Informal Leaders' Meeting at Blake Island near Seattle, starting what was to become an APEC tradition.
The boost in APEC's political stature did not mean an end to the informality. Every year, leaders humor the host economy (APEC members are referred to as economies, not countries) by wearing its national costume for the obligatory group photo. Talks are also held in informal settings called retreats, where leaders can exchange views freely among themselves without bureaucrats hovering nearby. This year, under Thailand's chairmanship, APEC is considering ways to make the Leaders' Meeting and dialogue with the private sector more informal, so that their exchanges will be truly spontaneous and candid.
APEC's emphasis on informality has a serious purpose. The Asia-Pacific region has always been a diverse lot, encompassing some of the world's most advanced economies as well as many more developing ones. Excessive formality could easily bog down the process and hold back the once-fractious region from developing the comfort level and mutual confidence necessary for building an open regional economy.
For all their differences, the APEC members are joined by a common belief that free and open trade and investment would bring prosperity to the region. In 1994, at Bogor, Indonesia, leaders acted on this belief by declaring that APEC intended to achieve free and open trade and investment in the Asia-Pacific no later than 2010 for developed economies and 2020 for developing economies. The Bogor Goals, as they are known, have become the major guiding force for APEC.
One year after Bogor, in Osaka, APEC followed up by identifying the three main pillars crucial to the achievement of the Bogor Goals. These are: 1) trade and investment liberalization; 2) trade facilitation; and 3) economic and technical cooperation. The third pillar, dubbed Ecotech in APEC jargon, is aimed squarely at the anti-globalization crowd. Its goals are to attain sustainable growth and equitable development within APEC, reduce economic disparities, improve the economic and social well-being of the people, and deepen the spirit of community in APEC. Who can quarrel with that?
In subsequent years, APEC continued to shape itself as the primary vehicle that would take the region towards free and open trade and investment in the region. At Subic Bay in the Philippines, leaders identified six priority Ecotech areas, including the development of human capital and small and medium enterprises (SMEs). In Vancouver, Ministers and Leaders discussed the need to work with all stakeholders in pursuing sustainable growth and development. In Shanghai and Los Cabos, Mexico, Leaders pledged to counter terrorism, which would have a serious dampening effect on trade and investment in the region if not addressed effectively.
Thailand, as the chair of APEC 2003, aims not so much to come up with ingenious new initiatives, but to build upon all the initiatives from years past and carry them forward to Bogor. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra himself has taken a great interest in APEC, having attended the Bogor Summit as foreign minister, and personally coined the theme and sub-themes for this year.
Some key areas where progress is expected to be made this year include:
� Contributing to the WTO's Doha Development Round of multilateral trade negotiations. The Fifth WTO Ministerial Conference in Cancun this September is expected to take up a number of contentious issues that are of great importance to APEC. While APEC is not a negotiating body, it might be able to provide much needed political impetus. At the SOM I, senior officials decided to reactivate the APEC caucus in Geneva to coordinate developments in both processes. In early June, APEC Ministers Related to Trade will convene in Khon Kaen in northeastern Thailand to discuss ways to help move the Doha Round forward.
� Strengthening of cooperation on counter-terrorism. At the SOM I, senior officials followed up on Leaders' instructions by setting up a counter-terrorism task force to coordinate members' efforts, and approved an action plan that would monitor members' progress in implementing counter-terrorism measures. In February, Bangkok also co-hosted, with the United States, a conference on Secure Trade in the APEC Region to explore ways to neutralize the effects of terrorism on trade. The goal of these efforts is not only to boost the security of regional trade, but also to reduce the costs of doing business and improve efficiency at the same time.
� Closer coordination with the business community. Drawing upon members' suggestions, Bangkok will adjust the format of the meeting between Leaders and members of the APEC Business Advisory Council (ABAC) so that economic leaders and private sector representatives can go engage in interactive exchanges. The key to more spontaneity and candor, as officials and leaders have found, is more informality.
� Strengthening of Ecotech. Members recognize that in order to achieve the Bogor Goals, member economies, in particular the less developed ones, must also be able to cope with the various changes that come with free and open trade and investment. They have therefore called for greater balance between the two priorities of liberalization and facilitation, on the one hand, and economic and technical cooperation, on the other. In this context, capacity building, for humans and institutions, will be a key priority in Thailand's year.
Besides Chiang Rai, APEC 2003 will also take delegates to Khon Kaen in the Northeast, and Phuket in the South. The year's preparations will culminate in Bangkok, where Leaders will be granted an audience with His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. At dinner, they will be treated to the majestic spectacle of a Royal Barge procession on the Chao Phraya River, against the backdrop of Bangkok's glittering Grand Palace and riverside temples. Manning the oars will be 2,500 sailors from the Royal Thai Navy, each in resplendent traditional garb.
Despite the considerable efforts to ensure that APEC will make good television, Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai stressed in his opening speech at the Chiang Rai meeting that Thailand's focus would be on substance. As the Foreign Ministry is in charge of coordinating all APEC work, delegates were reassured to hear from the Minister that the emphasis will be to move APEC forward on the road to Bogor. The successful outcome of the SOM I bore this out. It focused early on key issues and set a tone of relaxed seriousness that should carry over into subsequent meetings throughout 2003.
APEC has grown from relatively modest beginnings into an annual high-powered event with lofty ambitions for the Asia Pacific region. At the same time, its calculated informality has led to an atmosphere where the free flow of ideas is encouraged. As a people known for their unmatched hospitality and artistry, the Thais have a rare opportunity to combine the substance and informal traditions of APEC with their own inimitable style. With its proud historical and cultural heritage, its well-earned reputation as an open, free, tolerant and harmonious society, and its strategic position as a regional economic hub, Thailand is the perfect setting for this year's APEC. The road to Bogor has never seemed more alluring.
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