Does APEC merely add to global warming?
SYDNEY (Reuters) - As Asia-Pacific leaders jetted home on Sunday with yet another APEC souvenir to stuff into their "funny shirt" closet, folks back home may well ask: "So what did you get out of that meeting besides the outback raincoat?".
Host Australia shelled out A$300 million ($250 million) to accommodate the 21 leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Sydney, whose disgruntled residents were subjected to the biggest security operation in the country's history.
But leaders did come bearing gifts for Prime Minister John Howard, who is widely expected to call an election this week -- a $45 billion gas export deal with China, uranium sales to Russia, top-secret military technology from the United States.
Much to the chagrin of green groups, non-environmentalist Howard burnished his legacy with a "Sydney Declaration", signing up APEC members to an "aspirational target" for cutting greenhouse gases. It's voluntary and non-binding, so no worries for APEC, which includes some of the world's biggest polluters.
Green groups immediately dismissed the "Sydney distraction" as so much hot air adding to the warming of the globe.
Critics say APEC has lost its focus on economics and trade by meandering into the fields of security and now the environment.
But some analysts say that may be the price of its success.
"APEC is more important now than ever, and though its role in some realms remains modest -- security is the most glaring example -- in other areas it is emerging as the global decision-making body," the security analysis Web site Stratfor.com said.
"APEC's growing power is most clearly on display when it tackles issues such as climate change and consumer product safety."
So, when the APEC leaders, whose countries account for more than half of global trade, came out on Sunday with a strong endorsement of compromises on farm subsidies and industrial tariffs that negotiators are working on in Geneva, it must have been music to World Trade Organization chief Pascal Lamy's ears.
For the past two decades, APEC has been quietly crafting some of the most important rules for global commerce. At the Sydney meeting it completed three more chapters for a model free trade agreement that can be rolled out anywhere along the Pacific rim.
APEC also offers an unparalleled public relations platform to push pet projects and causes -- and to network like crazy.
U.S. President George W. Bush, who stopped off in Iraq on his way to Sydney, took every opportunity to defend the unpopular war. And to bolster the election fortunes of Howard, one of the most steadfast supporters of the war.
"They refer to the Prime Minister around here as a battler," Bush said this week. "I know why: he's courageous, he's wise, he's determined."
Russian President Vladimir Putin stopped off in Jakarta on the way to APEC to seal a $1 billion arms deal with Indonesia by way of advertising that Russia is back in the geopolitical game in Asia, after taking a long sabbatical from the Cold War.
"The main outcome of the summit is that Russia has significantly upgraded its status in the grouping and in the region," a senior diplomat in the Russian delegation said.
But China's Hu Jintao kept a relatively low profile, belying predictions that Beijing is big-footing APEC, founded in Canberra in 1989 with backing from the United States to push an Asia-Pacific free trade agenda.
Hu issued the usual stern warnings about Taiwan's leanings toward independence.
But mostly he seemed keen to reassure his Asia-Pacific neighbors that Beijing, grappling with a series of product recalls ranging from toys to toothpaste, took product safety "very seriously".
China's foreign ministry spokesman said Beijing did not have any larger ambitions in APEC.
"On this issue, China definitely does not seek any kind of an important role, or to gain some kind of a leadership position," spokesman Liu Jianchao said in Sydney.
Howard had enthused that APEC would make Australia "the centre of the universe in our region", but a comedy troupe stunt during APEC might have been the most-watched story overseas.
Posing as the Canadian delegation, members of ABC TV's The Chaser show drove a "motorcade" through two checkpoints to within meters of Bush's hotel -- one of them made up to look like Osama bin Laden, and the designation "Insecurity" written on their convention passes. Police arrested 11 of them.
(Additional reporting by John Ruwitch and Oleg Shchedrov)