Reflections on Apec

For many of us, the Economic Leaders’ Meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation to be held in Manila next week is no more than the promise of a long pre-Christmas holiday. We love holidays, especially the important ones that resonate our culture and traditions. Thus, not a few were disappointed when Nov. 2 was not made a nonworking holiday, given that All Saints Day this year fell on a Sunday. It would have given people who were going home to the provinces more time to be with their dead, instead of having to rush back to the city that same day.

In contrast, on the occasion of the Apec gathering, an almost weeklong break has been declared. Hundreds of domestic and international flights have been canceled to free Manila’s international airports so that the planes bearing dignitaries from around the world could land and take off without delay. Major roads leading to the venue of the meeting are being closed to normal traffic for security reasons and to permit delegates and participants easy access to the venue. Classes are suspended and offices closed. People are encouraged to seize this long holiday by going out of Metro Manila, provided they don’t take the plane.

There has to be a good reason for this disruption in the nation’s normal routine. Whatever it is, I have a sense that it is not being adequately communicated to the man on the street. This is the second time we are hosting this kind of meeting of world leaders. The first time didn’t cause as much disruption because it was held in Subic. It was a chance to draw attention to the dramatic conversion of the former US naval base into an economic zone. This year, I think the intention is to showcase the country’s overall economic transformation, and so the venue has to be the nation’s capital no less.

The self-confidence that underpins our keenness to host this event is admirable. A major leaders’ summit like this is a gigantic security nightmare. It is not every day that one brings together in one place the presidents of the United States, China and Russia, and the prime minister of Japan. The government cannot undertake anything this big and complex without the tacit cooperation and understanding of the entire Filipino nation. Such cooperation cannot be won by merely making people think they are being rewarded with a long special holiday. Parents, teachers and students, in particular, need to know why classes are being canceled, given that so many class days have already been lost to floods and heavy rains.

In my graduate class on modernity the other day, we faced the same problem. I decided to spend some time discussing the broad theory that might help explain the significance of regional economic forums like the Apec in a complex modern world economy. I began from a recognition of the reality of a global society that, every minute of the day, is reproduced in borderless economic transactions, mass communications, exchanges of knowledge and information, data processing, etc.

The tremendous ease in travel and communication has not only facilitated the global trade in goods and services; it has also radically changed its horizon. The speed with which events emanating from a functionally differentiated global economic system can penetrate societies everywhere, often in clear disregard of national restrictions, makes one wonder if regional initiatives such as the Apec are nothing but a ritualistic affirmation of what is already a fact of contemporary life, or just a way of aligning national laws and policies to the requirements of global business.

Surely, for a host of historical and cultural reasons, the idea of an Asean Economic Community is more logical and plausible than an economic bloc that draws its imagined unity from shared access to the Pacific Ocean. The Apec is such an improbable agglomeration of disparate economies that it is difficult to imagine any collective interest or tradition that holds its member-economies together as a regional bloc. If that is the case, then the Apec’s rationale possibly lies more in providing heads of states and their ministers a venue for bilateral discussions, and the exploration of urgent regional and global concerns.

In this regard, it would really be a pity if the tense situation in the South China Sea were not somehow taken up by some of the assembled leaders even if only in informal talks outside of the forum’s main agenda. At the same time, I do understand why the resolute avoidance of the risk of embarrassment prompts us not to bring up this topic during the main summit itself. But, what a missed opportunity it would be if, because of this unmentionable issue, President Aquino and China’s President Xi Jinping were not able to use this occasion to have an extended conversation on many other things. I believe that a manifestation of personal graciousness by both leaders would go a long way toward reestablishing warm relations between the two nations.

The ironic thing about the globalized economy is that it must work with a political system that is anything but globalized. The Apec reflects this reality, no matter how much it thinks of itself as a group of member-economies. The summit is formally billed as a meeting of economic leaders. Yet, it is the heads of nation-states, not the CEOs of corporations, that are going to do much of the talking.

In gatherings of this nature, the business at hand has usually been completed even before the leaders have sat down for the meeting. Therefore, the real value of these face-to-face encounters among the world’s leaders must be sought in the goodwill they create in the course of their conversations. There is no price tag to that. We should gladly accept any inconvenience to make it happen.

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