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October 20, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 134




Dennis Coday U.S. agenda tops world agenda, again

Dennis Coday, NCR staff writer U.S. agenda tops world agenda, again

The cockles of my heart have been warmed in recent days reading so many news stories with Bangkok datelines. I lived there 11 years, so yearn for the people and food of that most hospitable of Southeast Asian nations.

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Of course, the news from Bangkok has not been all that heart-warming. Bangkok is in the news because President George Bush is there for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. You have no doubt heard news accounts of Thai authorities sweeping the capital clean of beggars, street urchins and roadside vendors. To ease Bangkok's notorious traffic jams, the government declared a four day weekend holiday and asked people to leave the city. All of this is standard for any high-level international meeting held in Bangkok.

Like these stories, APEC may cause a little hoopla, but not much else. APEC is a perennial talking shop that has always produced more light and gas than heat. What is APEC? A summit? A forum? A gathering -- we used to call it four modifiers in search of a noun. Like its name, the forum has never had a discernable reference of being.

In its early days, when no one could decide what APEC would or could do, the then new president Bill Clinton was enthusiastic for it. He gave it importance and glamour. Every country with a Pacific Ocean view one wanted to join, although it still had no clear objective.

A bit of history. APEC was born in the irrational exuberance of the East Asian miracle. The miracle, proclaimed authentic by the World Bank in 1993, was the magic development plan for Third World economies based on the model of industrialization that created the East Asian Tiger economies of South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore and held such promise for the then emerging tiger cub economies in Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Somebody had the idea that the whole Asia Pacific region could harness this model of economic development. The thinking was that developing countries on the Pacific Rim could benefit from accelerated development and the developed countries would benefit as economic partners. It was a rising tide that would float all boats.

The economic crash of 1997 pretty much drowned those dreams, however. The economic miracle proved to be little more than unsustainable planned economies laced with cronyism and covered with a thin veneer of free marketeerism. The tiger cub economies were devastated. Indonesia spun into chaos from which it has never recovered.

APEC, however, soldiered on. In the years immediately after the crash of 1997, the forum assumed what approached a purposed. The leaders of struggling countries could get together to assure one another and any one who was listening that things were OK and would get better. No one talked any more about the East Asian Miracle, but leaders looked to the future with hope. For domestic audiences in Asia, it was good showmanship (that is, good politics).

By 2000, people in Asia had come to realize that rebuilding countries, economies and lives would take plain, sober, hard work. Some even talked of disbanding APEC. This forum in search of a purpose was saved in 2001 by the launching of the world war on terrorism.

So that is the topic of conversations in Bangkok these days: North Korea's nuclear bombs, Al Queda affiliate groups in Southeast Asia and finding support for the U.S. occupation of Iraq. If that sounds like a decidedly U.S. agenda, it is. That gives the impression, again, that the only world agenda is the U.S. agenda. Ho hum.

One ironic economic issue that is supposed to be discussed is the value of the yuan, China's exchange currency (China has a non-convertible domestic currency called the renminbi). According to some experts, the yuan is extremely undervalued, which makes Chinese exports cheap. Many economists want the yuan to float more freely with the world markets.

This is ironic because during the crash of 1997 and through subsequent years, China won high praise for keeping the yuan stable. But this too is U.S. agenda item. For years, a strong yuan helped prevent a complete economic meltdown in Asia. In an American election year, however, a weaker yuan can pay dividends to presidential candidates of whatever party.

Dennis Coday is an NCR staff writer and coordinates NCR's Web site. His e-mail address is

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