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Should We Read Anything into Your Missing APEC, Secretary Clinton?

November 12, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Photo Signboard in the Yokohama Train Station.

By Ernie Bower, Senior Adviser & Director, Southeast Asia Program, CSIS

Should we read anything into your missing the APEC meeting in Japan, Mrs. Clinton?

The answer is probably not. The Secretary of State wrapped up her Odyessian tour of seven Asian countries – not all of them APEC members, by the way – and staying in Asia another week to make it to the APEC Summit this weekend in Yokohama would mean spending three full weeks in the region: a tall order and on the margin of physically abusive.  Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg will stand in for Secretary Clinton at APEC. The US will also be amply represented by President Obama, USTR Ron Kirk and Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke.

Any perceived slight to the Japanese, as host of APEC, was also managed well when Secretary Clinton met her counterpart from Japan, Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, in Honolulu at the outset of her current sojourn.  U.S.-Japan relations are on the upswing, thanks in no small part to China and its aggressive handling of issues surrounding disputed maritime territories in the Senkaku/Daioyu Islands.

Still, one has to wonder … for a secretary of state who is on record saying repeatedly that she understands that “showing up” is vital to demonstrating commitment in Asia to pass on APEC begs questions. Will the U.S. remain fully invested in APEC? Can the U.S. afford to sustain its engagement in APEC at the leaders’ level? Annually?

Certainly the Secretary can be excused. She is carving her legacy in Asia and in no small part based on her latest trip, where she invested her time and words wisely.  It also makes sense to deploy the secretary of state and the president separately to broaden coverage and expand the impact of US efforts to strengthen ties with partners and elevate old relationships into new partnerships.

But traditionally, the foreign ministers (or, in our case, secretary of state) would join their leaders at APEC Summits.

Couldn’t that have been arranged if the secretary started her trip ten days later? While there is no reason for a secretary of state to be in-country for mid-term elections, a later start would have allowed her to join her former intra-party political rival, now teammate, President Barack Obama in Yokohama. That might have made sense given the fact the U.S. is hosting APEC next year in Hawaii. She could have personally invited counterparts and conducted many meetings in a target-rich environment. Hard to know what schedule pressures needed to be overcome though, and the truth is that other members of the Cabinet need to help her fill out the last, but crucial, part of full U.S. engagement in Asia – a forward leaning trade policy. That is going to be a very hard sell in Japan with the President leaving Seoul without the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS).

Other key figures may miss APEC this year too. Prime Minister Najib of Malaysia is recovering from chicken pox and is sending his deputy prime minister in his place.  President Yudhoyono of Indonesia was planning to stay home to attend to the recovery efforts from the tragic dual natural disasters of the tsunami and eruption of Mount Merapi – but he decided an hour before his vice president departed that he would go to Japan.

One thing is clear — APEC needs to step up its game in terms of tangible results if it intends to sustain its role as the “annual general meeting of the Asia Pacific.” In 2013, APEC leaders’ summits will be due for their 20 year report card. Given the pressure on the men and women who run countries, and competition from the G20 and the East Asia Summit, APEC needs to deliver the goods immediately, particularly on trade, in order to earn the time and commitment of regional leaders. The best way for it to accomplish that goal would be to adapt the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) as the foundational trade agreement for a Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP). Doing so could secure APEC’s role as the regional trade architecture for the Asia Pacific.

Hillary Clinton will be missed in Japan. While her travel decision is not a direct commentary on APEC’s effectiveness, it has underlined some serious questions about the future.

Photo by Jonathan Pellgen, used under a Creative Commons license.

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