Interview: Bob Hawke and Gareth Evans, APEC architects
It was unseasonably cold and rainy in Canberra when the first Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit convened on November 6, 1989. But despite the ominous weather -- and a barely settled rift over membership between the United States, China and Taiwan -- expectations were high for the Australian government initiative conceived to promote multilateral economic cooperation around the Pacific.
Though its stated goals remain maddeningly gauzy -- per an op-ed from AsiaPacVoices the institution has "failed to adopt leadership positions on any of the key issues facing the region and the world economy" -- APEC remains the region's most important annual gathering of governments.
On the eve of the twentieth anniversry of the first APEC conference, Bob Hawke, former Australian prime minister and widely recognized “founding father” of APEC, and Gareth Evans, former Australian foreign minister and chairman of the initial summit, sat down separately to discuss that first APEC gathering, offer advice to 2009 delegates and recall a “uniquely Australian contribution” to international diplomacy.
CNNGo: The idea of APEC was first publicly raised in a speech in Seoul in January 1989 by you, Mr Hawke. The inaugural conference took place in November of that same year. How did such a massive initiative come together so quickly?
Bob Hawke: It’s one of the shortest gestation periods, I suppose, for any major international organization. But it was a reflection of the fact that the time really had come for something like this.
In late ’88, one could feel that basic fundamentals of world international relationships were changing. It was fairly clear that the Soviet Union … was on its way out. China was on its way up. The center of economic gravity in the world was quite clearly moving from the mid-Atlantic to mid-Pacific. That was understood readily by most of the nations in the region.
Gareth Evans: The idea had been around forever, but there had been some question about participating nations and would the United States be involved or not in the process.
Hawke: There were two issues, which were really significant. Some people didn’t want China, and some people didn’t want the United States. To my mind, this was absurdity. You couldn’t with any sense of intelligent purpose talk about the Asia-Pacific region without either of them not being part of it. And we had to do quite a bit of, not arm-twisting, you know, but a lot of discussion and negotiation to bring about a point where the organization that did emerge encompassed both.
CNNGo: Who opposed China’s participation?Hawke: It was a question of China and Taiwan. That fact complicated the participation of a number of people. As it turned out, we were able to get a situation where China accepted the presence of Taiwan, but not recognizing it as an independent state. I think that (APEC) ended up being the first time they actually sat together in any international organization.
CNNGo: When the first APEC finally came together, was there more a sense of anticipation or trepidation?
Evans: There was a tremendously high level of expectation. We wanted to address trade liberalization and actually find a way of cutting through the bilateral (impediments) to that. There was also a sense that this could be an important forum for a wider range of issues beyond trade.
We were not sure for some time, for example, of the concept of Taiwan being involved as an economy rather than a sovereign state in order to accommodate the Chinese. The continuing general nervousness surrounding many of these issues led me to make the rather famous remark in Seattle [in 1993] that APEC was "four adjectives in search of a noun."
CNNGo: Do you regret that comment now?Evans: No, no, not at all. It was said jokingly, but it was an accurate description of the need to shrug off a lot of the caution surrounding the issues and give this body a formal institutional coherence. It wasn’t dismissive. It was an acknowledgement that this is a work in progress and the need to shrug off many of the inhibitions that have (delayed) progress.
Hawke: It was fine words, but it didn’t mean anything.
CNNGo: Has APEC met its original goals or been a disappointment?
Evans: In retrospect, the progress has been a little disappointing. After the initial momentum, from Seattle and thereafter, I think the progress has been somewhat disappointing.
In the global financial crisis there's a tendency to become more protectionist. This is poisonous.— Bob Hawke, former Australian prime minister, when asked what message he has for this year's APEC delegates
CNNGo: In what way?Evans: There’s a tremendous opportunity to make changes to the regional policy architecture in a number of areas. Trade being a primary issue, of course, but also security issues. The leaders meetings … this is still the only occasion that brings together this extraordinary panoply of leaders.
Hawke: I think you can put (APEC’s) achievements in three categories. It’s presence has been a factor in stimulating the general sort of lifting of the attitude that the world is much likely to be better off in a situation of liberalized trade than otherwise.
Two, is the area which is very un-dramatic and unpublicized but which is nevertheless very significant, and that is the work that’s done by the committees of officials that work on the mundane sorts of things like the technicalities of international trade -- apart from policy decisions, it’s the actual mechanics of trading between nations.
Thirdly, the annual leaders meeting, which is the only annual basis upon which leaders agree to come together. And that’s been useful not only in terms of international trading relations, but also in important political discussions. For instance, when the leaders met at the time of the crisis in Indonesia [1999, in New Zealand] some very important discussions took place on that issue.
CNNGo: Was the pressure applied by delegations toward a resolution of the situation between Indonesia and East Timor an example of APEC effectiveness?
Hawke: I think that is acknowledged by most people as one of the highlights, yes.
CNNGo: Might more of those straight political issues, such as climate change, begin to assume a more central role in APEC discussions?Hawk: No. It’s inevitable, particularly at the leaders meetings, that other issues will be raised. … But it’s never going to change from having its main emphasis on economic and trading relationships.
CNNGo: Where did the idea come from for the annual “national dress” group photo?Hawke: The leaders meeting came after my time, so someone else is to blame for that.
CNNGo: What message would you deliver to this year’s delegates?Hawke: It is more than ever important that we remain committed to the concept of liberalized international trade. We have seen the evidence that in the global financial crisis there is a tendency for people to start looking inward and become more protectionist. This is poisonous and must be resisted at all costs.
Evans: Get serious about a fully integrated regional economic architecture on a multilateral basis. And recognize the huge assets APEC has in bringing all of these leaders together under one roof to wrestle with issues.
You have the beginnings of a serious political and security architecture in place. The trick for the future is bringing the two pillars of that arch together and really cementing them into place. That setup is the way forward and it’s a critical need to toughen up the policy architecture.
CNNGo: What are your personal memories from the 1989 APEC?Evans: The most intriguing thing was that the first session was held on Melbourne Cup Day, so during the first session we broke off halfway through to watch this horse race. Of course in Australia, Melbourne Cup is a public holiday (in parts of the country) and everybody in the universe watches, even people who would never look at a horse race at any other time gather round to watch it. We had some rather bemused delegates gathered round looking up at a TV screen.
Hawke: They certainly were fascinated by the way in which the Australian nation came to a halt for the Cup.
Evans: Of course, the Asians will bet on anything, so we did have this group of very delighted delegates there, as well. It was a very Australian contribution to the process of multilateral diplomacy.
Bob Hawke is Chairman of The Hawke Research Institute Advisory Board at the Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre, University of South Australia; a member of the Board of Advisers of the Boao Forum for Asia; Chairman of the Committee of Experts on Membership of the Education International; and Chairman, Trade Union Education Foundation, among other honorary positions.
Gareth Evans is the president and chief executive of Brussels-based International Crisis Group and co-chair of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.