From government to the opposition, among business to the security services, traffic minders, anti-war activists, mischief makers and public-spirited citizenry, APEC has come in for much discussion.
Not since Canberra laid claim to being midwife, in 1989, for the regional forum spanning the Asia-Pacific rim, has this summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum been held in Australia.
Back then there were competing claims to regional leadership. Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad sought to limit membership of his East Asia Economic Caucus to the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) plus China, Japan and South Korea. This led to his skipping APEC’s first official leaders summit in Seattle in 1993, for which then Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating introduced the word “recalcitrant” to the popular vernacular.
As Sydney braces for Australia’s first hosting of the leaders’ summit next weekend, there is a sense of trepidation along with Prime Minister John Howard’s obvious enthusiasm and pride in what he regards as “the most beautiful big city in the world”.
Security is unprecedented for the gathering of 21 world leaders who represent more than half of global production. Much of that security is to keep in check protests against US President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq, and the conduct of US foreign policy.
Howard says the security is less because of the fear of terrorism rather it is the “violent propensity of many of the demonstrations that take place against such international gatherings”.
This is true to a point. It was the case in Seattle and it may turn out to be the case in Sydney. But it wasn’t for most of the annual gatherings, which have been held in different member states, in between.
This difference in reactions underpins the balance of competing attitudes of state and people in the respective host cities. Preparations for Sydney have brought into relief the difference in governance and differences in the conduct of foreign relations across the disparate communities lining the shores of the Pacific.
There are those who will see it as too much of a challenge to make a forum like APEC work. But the more optimistic will see the opportunities along with the challenges.
The run-up to Sydney has had different people thinking - and planning.
Howard, over the last week, has assessed the value of APEC at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney. Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd, across the city on the same day, was doing the same at the Australian Institute of International Affairs. In Melbourne two days later, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer delivered the inaugural Monash Asia Institute public lecture on “Australian foreign policy today and tomorrow”.
Meanwhile in the labyrinth of Sydney’s rocky outcrops, protesters are working out how to make their voices heard from behind the police barriers and water cannons held in reserve.
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