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MEDIA-ASIA: Bush Irrelevance Showing

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Nov 22 2006 (IPS) - If the commentaries in East Asian newspapers on the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit on the weekend are a reflection of the region’s mood, then United States President George W. Bush’s visit is seen as lacking in relevance.

A wide arc of disapproval, from sections of the press stretching from Japan to the Philippines, Washington’s strongest allies in the region, contrasts with the welcome Bush received in 2003, when he visited Bangkok for the APEC summit that year.

Then, Bush’s arrival – for a six-country visit in as many days – was seen as timely, placing the region once again in Washington’s sights after the focus had shifted to its ‘war on terror’ in West Asia. Japan and South Korea had rallied round during that visit, offering troops and material support to strengthen U.S. forces in Iraq.

But as Bush left Asia late Monday, following a three-nation tour, with the main stop being in Vietnam, host of the APEC summit, the words in the region’s press shed light on what the U.S. leader failed to achieve from the Pacific rim group of nations.

Noticeable was the lukewarm response to Washington’s proposal for APEC’s 21-member group of economies to establish a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP), potentially making it the world’s largest free trade area. The final declaration from the Hanoi meeting said that the proposal would be subject to further study.

‘’APEC lumps together a myriad of political systems and economic powers. However, with some members wary of the U.S. , an FTAAP is unlikely to be established anytime soon,” wrote Japan’s ‘The Daily Yomiuri,’ in a commentary on Monday. ‘’The U.S. came up with the FTAAP plan to counteract efforts by Japan and China to set the ball rolling on free trade frameworks that did not include Washington.”

‘’The lameduck status of the U.S. President George W. Bush (following his Republican party’s defeat at this month’s Congressional elections) was very obvious at the conclusion Sunday of the APEC conference,” added Julius F. Fortuna, a columnist, in ‘The Manila Times.’ ‘’The APEC nations à rejected the U.S.-backed proposal to make the region into one vast free-trade zone. After a debate, the communique simply contained an agreement to undertake further studies on the proposal. It treated the free-trade idea as a non-binding principle.”

The region’s press also drew attention to critical comments made by government leaders towards Washington’s attempt to have APEC go beyond its economic mission and take a tough stand on regional security issues. The thorn was Bush’s call for strong words aimed at North Korea’s nuclear expansion programme.

APEC is ‘’in danger of losing focus as more and more political and security issues are being brought under its ambit,” wrote M. Veera Pandiyan of ‘The Star,’ a Malaysian newspaper, referring to the concerns of Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahamad Badawi. The Malaysian premier had told journalists at the summit that ‘’if an increasing number of political issues keep cropping up and more pages of communiques are devoted to these things, then there is a danger that we might be derailed from the economic objectives”.

That such a regional view prevailed over what Washington sought was evident in the final statement that emerged at the end of the APEC meeting. There was no formal reference condemning Pyongyang in the written declaration. But a post-summit verbal statement was read out by Vietnam’s President Nguyen Minh Triet, castigating North Korea nuclear tests as ‘’a clear threat to our shared interest of peace and security and our shared goals of achieving a nuclear weapons-free Korean Peninsula.”

Kavi Chongkittavorn, a respected Thai columnist on Asian affairs, is hardly surprised by the latest judgements directed against Bush. ‘’It is clear that the countries in Asia want to display a mind of their own, with new interest towards China. Trying to push APEC to accept an U.S. agenda will not work,” Kavi, a senior editor at ‘The Nation’ newspaper, told IPS. ‘’Bush has come to be seen as a two-issue president by some – the Middle East and Iraq. These don’t address the concerns of the people here.”

The 21 members of APEC, that account for close to 60 percent of the world’s economy and about 50 percent of global trade, include Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Peru, Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, United States and Vietnam.

By the end of the summit, which ran from Nov. 17 – 19, the grouping had also made its intentions clear about the failed talks at the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the body created to govern the new international free trade system. The Hanoi declaration backed the need for a ‘’multilateral trading system,” urging stalled negotiations at the 150 member WTO to resume.

Yet, as critics of the WTO say, for that to happen, the U.S. along with the European Union and Japan, should take the lead in giving up their demand to retain heavy subsidies for their local agriculture products, giving it an unfair edge over similar producers from the developing world.

‘’The U.S. is on a campaign to force developing countries in APEC to return to the negotiating table and revive the WTO talks. We want governments to make that decision by listening to their own people, not Washington,” Joy Chavez, senior associate at Focus on the Global South, a Bangkok-based regional think tank, told IPS. ‘’The biggest problem coming in the way of the talks is the U.S.. If it wants movement, it should give up being so adamant about maintaining its subsidies.”

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