The contradictions of Apec

The Apec summit in Subic brings together the heads of 18 AsiaPacific states, except those of Hong Kong, which is represented by its finance minister, and Taiwan, by one of its top businessmen.  Yet, Apec insists that it is a club of economies and not of governments. Therefore its agenda excludes politics.  Its concerns are supposed to be limited to trade, investment, and economic cooperation.

This is ironic because it is political issues that the Apec members seem precisely unable to avoid.  Taiwan could not be represented by its president for the simple reason that allowing it to do so would mean recognizing it as a separate state.  China simply would not allow a 2China policy.

The United States, Apec’s lead player, has tried to isolate Cuba from the rest of the world since Fidel Castro came to power.  It not only prohibits American business from dealing with Cuba.  It also penalizes companies from other countries that insist on trading and investing in Cuba.  This blatant use of economic clout to brow-beat a nation whose leaders the US happens not to like seems so contrary to the principles of free trade.

If it is the Castro dictatorship that the US objects to, how come it supported the Marcos dictatorship for many years?  Why does it continue to trade and invest in Indonesia, whose violent annexation of East Timor in 1976 the UN has consistently refused to recognize?

Moreover, Apec’s agenda does not cover all possible economic issues.  It advocates the free flow of goods and capital, but not of people in search of work.  One would expect that since the Philippines, this year’s Apec host, is known more as a supplier of people than of goods, the rights of migrant workers should top its agenda in Subic.

But except for some discussion on the exchange and accreditation of high-level technical people and services, the Apec agenda is silent on the situation of overseas contract workers.  Rich countries demand access to our markets for their products.  Yet they protect their own labor markets from the flow of cheaper and more capable workers from countries like us.

The summiteers insist they are coming not as the heads of their governments but only as salesmen of their respective economies. Yet most of the commitments to be made through the Individual Action Plans are enforceable only if supported by national legislation.

The world may indeed have become borderless, but there is no way economies can have enduring interactions with one another without the active intervention of governments.  Yet, Apec wants governments to step aside and let free markets organize and dictate the general direction of society.

In the first place, it is doubtful if the idea of a passive state is even congenial to economic development.  One of the lessons to be learned from the success of the so-called “tiger economies” of East Asia is precisely how an active interventionist state can break the cycle of a country’s underdevelopment.  The South Korean market was anything but free.  The Singaporean state was anything but passive.

In the second place, a crucial role of the modern state in all the mature economies of the world today has always been to ensure the supply to every citizen of those social goods which make us human.  These include basic housing, clean water, a safe environment, education, public libraries, museums, parks, historical sites – all the things that make living in foreign lands worthwhile for many Filipinos.  The trend today is for the state to withdraw from this role, and leave the provision of these goods to private initiative.  The Apec doctrine is premised on such comprehensive privatization.

However one looks at it, the unrestricted flow of goods and investments that Apec envisions is bound to affect the way we live in very profound ways.  Not too long ago, rice fields were dug up to give way to prawn farms in anticipation of the large prawn market abroad. The prawn industry was subsequently hit by disease.  Today those converted farms lie idle, aggravating hunger in the countryside.

It is the same crisis that the banana export industry in Mindanao went through in the early 1980’s.  Small farmers were enticed to lease or sell their farms to banana growers, or to become growers themselves. The conversion process entailed digging long ditches across their farms, and treating their soil with infusions of gypsum and other elements suitable to banana plants.

It didn’t take long before the newly-opened Japanese fruit market, which the Philippine banana industry had targetted, would get glutted not only with bananas but with many other fruits from everywhere.  It came to a point when banana farmers were offered money to chop down their plants just to avoid oversupplying the market.  Before long, many small growers fell into debt, but by that time it had become difficult for them to get out and go back to rice or vegetable farming.

It is foolish, of course, to imagine that we could and should close our country to the rest of the world, or that we do not stand to benefit from the spread of modern technology.  But one wishes that, in the face of the Juggernaut of globalization, we  could find the time to converse as a nation and clarify our situation and our goals as a community.

This is no time for the state to relinquish leadership of society.  It must talk to the people and listen to their expectations and their fears.  It must reflect their voices in the conversation now dominated by technocrats, traders and investors.


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