Last weekend, the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation leaders meeting took place in Santiago, Chile. Does it still matter?
Much has changed around the Asia-Pacific region in the past decade. Japan's economic ties with East Asia have all weakened sharply. Meanwhile, China has risen dramatically as a trading partner and a destination for direct investment, and its relative ascendancy is likely to continue for some time.
In the wake of the Asian financial crisis of 1997, governments in East Asia put more emphasis on talking among themselves in the new Asean+3 grouping. And several East Asian governments began negotiating bilateral or sub-regional free trade agreements (FTAs), with the China-Association of Southeast Asian Nations talks perhaps the most prominent of these.
This activity within East Asia suggests that Apec is fading as a focus of attention for these governments. However, when governments meet for a regional discussion, a key motive should be to bring together a collection of economies that have distinctively close economic links. On that basis, Asean+3 is too narrow a grouping because it leaves out four important players that have close ties with East Asia: Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan and the US.
As important as this exercise in "networking" may be, Apec needs to do something more. The initial attempt to define that "something more" was the Bogor Declaration of 1994, which established a vision of an Apec region free of trade and investment barriers by 2010 for the developed members and 2020 for the developing members.
The failure to articulate the meaning of this lofty goal or to devise any realistic process to achieve it is the primary reason for disappointment with Apec. However, it would be a mistake to read too much into this failure.
On trade barriers, Apec can be a voice of support for the World Trade Organisation, and the need to complete the Doha round of multilateral trade negotiations.
Or, Apec can play a role in monitoring and reviewing the FTA activities of its members.
At the same time, it is important to recognise what Apec should not be. Since 9/11, the US government has pushed several security issues at Apec, such as efforts to get Asian governments to allow the stationing of American customs inspectors in their countries to pre-clear shipments bound for the United States.
While extending the economic discussion at Apec to include some security issues is fine, the other governments are beginning to tire of the single -minded approach of the Bush administration. Apec is, and should be, about a lot more than supporting the American war on terrorism. If pushed too far, this focus of the Bush administration will only drive other governments away from Apec towards Asean+3.
These ideas represent a decidedly modest agenda for Apec. The organisation is not destined to create exciting big changes. But Apec can continue the process of nudging the Asia-Pacific region closer together economically.
Edward Lincoln is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. This article originally appeared as part of the Nautilus Institute's Northeast Asia Peace and Security Network Policy Forum Online.