Wednesday, March 20

Where does Malaysia fit in the scheme of things?

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One missing communiqué is not fatal for Apec. — Reuters file photo

TO many observers, the failure of the countries represented at the recent summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, to issue the traditional joint statement at the conclusion of that meeting, is a failure of the summit itself.

Some analysts even say that this could spell the end of Apec – a trade grouping of 21 member economies in this part of Asia and the Pacific.

Just because of a single failure to release to the public a statement at the end of the meeting, it may be premature for anybody to pronounce the demise of a regional multilateral trading system, which has existed for a quarter of a century and whose members have worked hard to reduce tariffs and other trade barriers among their members all this while.

There may be other benefits of the summit of which we ordinary folk don’t really know. They will be made known to us by and by.

We can guess, however, that during their side meetings at the summit, the leaders may have struck some important business deals between their countries, quietly. Success at this level may be more important than a break from tradition, the issuance of a joint statement.

Indeed, I think it is wise not to release a communiqué underlining points of disagreement between parties, in this case between China and USA.The text of the statement would have been endorsed by all the attendees, morally binding them. Any points of disagreement would be better sorted out quietly by the parties at loggerheads with each other on some other level and at some other time.

Meanwhile, the other member economies can carry on doing business within the multilateral trade system, trade war between the big powers notwithstanding.

As to the prediction of its demise, I think that a regional multilateral trading system, well thought out long before it was formally formed in 1989, will keep on functioning as usual, if the original member economies still believe in its objectives: developing and strengthening of the multilateral trading system among the countries in this part of the world; increase in the interdependence and prosperity of member economies, and the promotion of sustainable economic growth in the Asia-Pacific region.

Healthy competition

It was the former Prime Minister of Australia, Bob Hawke, when visiting South Korea in January of 1989, who first broached the idea of a regional common market, later called Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.

Does it surprise anyone then that it is again Australia which has embarked on a scheme, a Marshall Plan of sorts, to help the member economies in Polynesia? Three other economies – Japan, USA and New Zealand – are in this league. Obviously to prosper those countries in Polynesia in competition with China, so what’s the problem there for Apec?

China has been lending money to the countries there for their internal infrastructural development. There’s a mutual benefit there.

Whether or not the countries which get Chinese loans may be able to repay their debts when it’s time to repay is another matter; it’s between the lender and the debtor to sort out in good time.

To me this competition is good in the sense that the basic trading arrangements adopted by Apec all this while are being recognised as being practicable by the competitors. That, I submit, enhances its inherent strengths. Who’s talking about its irrelevance?

Malaysia’s place in Apec

Of direct relevance to us Malaysians is the question: Where does our country stand in this scheme of things?

A first indication of our position vis-a-vis Apec is the statement made in Port Moresby by Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir to the effect that Malaysia would continue to fight for free and fair trade.It’s a neutral stand; it is wise that we talk less at the moment but calculate carefully as to the next move – safety first.

Zopfan

In this connection, I would suggest that Malaysia as a pigmy elephant work hard on Zopfan in line with the Kuala Lumpur Declaration 1971, which was signed by all the member states of Asean.

Zopfan has the vision ‘to make Southeast Asia a region of Peace, Freedom and Exception of political disputes’, particularly between the major powers, it may be added. You know who the big powers are.

Part of our job in the context of Asean is to help achieve its objectives: “sustaining the growth and development of the region for the common good of its peoples and, in this way, to contribute the growth and development of the world economy; enhancing the positive gains, both for the region and the world economy, resulting from increasing economic interdependence”.

Our role in this Asean initiative is vital vis-a-vis the big powers. It is important that we are politically non-aligned.

We cannot stop the Chinese and the Americans from fighting for influence in this part of the world but we must keep our own fences well-guarded at the same time.

Meanwhile, let’s continue trading as usual with the other partners all over the world, avoiding entanglements with big power politics as much as possible. Time is not right to take sides.

It is true that the escalating war between China and the USA has somewhat affected our GDP but there are other contributing factors that affect the slowdown of that GDP.

In the end, we shall overcome, trusting in own our fundamental economic strength and resilience as the system is being steadily restored and mended here and there.

It will be functioning again given time – once an Asian tiger, undernourished for a period, but now growing from strength to strength.

It is normal that when two elephants fight, the little animals will get hurt if they are stupid enough to be in the way such as trying to separate the contenders. Step aside and guard your flanks.

The little ones will be able to avoid getting hurt if they play smart. Look at Thailand and learn from her tactics in avoiding being dragged into the Second World War. We are not looking forward to a Third World War, not at all, but are being wise if we are prepared for any eventuality. We must work for peace through Zopfan.

For what they are worth, the above are my observations this week.

Have a good weekend folks.

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