It’s one of the biggest stakeholder engagement operations imaginable: convincing the major countries of the Asia-Pacific to come on board to create a new regional architecture.
Faced with an unenthusiastic reception by two American presidents, this was the challenge that faced Paul Keating in setting up APEC, the former prime minister recalled on Thursday night.
The journey to set up the leaders’ forum known as Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation — four adjectives in search of a noun, as former foreign minister Gareth Evans described it — involved outmaneuvering between Japan, Indonesia, China and the United States, he told an audience at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne.
Although Bob Hawke had set up an Asia-Pacific ministerial meeting, Keating wanted a leaders’ forum, bereft of officials, that could really get things moving in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nowhere in the world had there been a regular opportunity for prime ministers and presidents to come together and work things out.
“If you can get them together and make them do things, you can make decisions,” Keating explained. “And of course, the officials were horrified. The world is full of Humphrey Applebys, you know.”
This had the result many of the said officials would have feared — though Keating used this to his advantage.
“As the debate went on, some of these heads of government would run out of notes they’d been given. So they’d say to me, ‘what do I say next?’. I’d write their notes. I’d say, ‘look, you can make these points’,” he laughed.
But setting APEC up in the beginning involved some careful footwork. When George HW Bush came to visit soon after he took up the prime ministership, Keating jumped on the opportunity to push the leaders meeting idea.
“He was coming basically to have a game of golf with Bob — that was what it was all about. A bit of a chat, but fundamentally a game of golf. I thought, well I’ve got this guy, if I can get him in a headlock and interest him in it, he might just go for it,” he said.
But a lukewarm reception led him to go after the Japanese. He’d made friends with Kiichi Miyazawa during International Monetary Fund meetings before he became Japanese prime minister. When Keating brought up the idea with Miyazawa, he said he’d come along if Indonesian president Suharto would too.
“So the key was getting the big bloc of Indonesia. Suharto, of course, had this enormous policy ambition and ability. So I got Suharto, and I got Miyazawa, then I had to get [Chinese premier] Li Peng. That was a big event, getting him.”
But then the US changed presidents. This meant Bill Clinton was wary of coming into office and establishing a big new regional architecture straight after beating Bush senior by attacking him for not being sufficiently focused on the domestic economy.
This hurdle was overcome with some communicatory finessing. Clinton’s response was, ‘I’ll think about this — if you can make it look like a trade body.’
After a few phone calls, “we decided we’d perhaps make it look like a trade body, even though it was of course a strategic body, and we’d have the first meeting in Seattle, to look across the Pacific for jobs. That was the pitch. Seattle was the home of Boeing and Microsoft, and Bill Gates turned up … And of course Australia’s been at that big seat ever since. 20 years now,” Keating recalled.
He also joked with interlocutor Kerry O’Brien about efforts to undermine Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad at the second APEC meeting in Bogor, Indonesia:
“Mahathir was giving Suharto grief at the meeting — you know, I don’t like that Mahathir. Bill [Clinton] and I are standing at the urinal, and he says, ‘you know what we’re gonna do with that Mahathir, we’re gonna screw this guy’.”
“And did you?”
“Yeah we did.”
“Just by knocking off all his amendments. He wanted addendums to the communiqué. I said to Suharto, ‘don’t you weaken’ — because Suharto was chairing it. So Suharto just sat there and nailed him. Fantastic!”
Keating used his famous — or notorious — good relationship with Suharto to obtain an outsize role in the creation of what would become the Bogor Declaration, writing up the draft in Canberra with the PM’s policy and economic advisers Don Russell and Allan Gyngell, which Suharto then presented as his own position.“The only way we’re going to get a region-wide, completely open trade agreement is through APEC.”
With Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty negotiations having completely left the world’s second largest economy, China, out of the process, he thinks APEC will have to take up the role of ensuring a proper regional agreement.
Although Keating would eventually go through a bad patch in relations with Clinton when the he sent vice-president Al Gore to the Osaka meeting in 1995, the former PM recollected that the Bogor meeting concluded well.
“I had to introduce Jiang Zemin, the Chinese president, to Bill Clinton,” he said. “They’d only had a brief meeting in Washington, a hello, there’d been no real meeting. Of course Bill didn’t want to look like to his audience he was embracing China, and all of that. Anyway, at the Bogor meeting at the end of it, I’ve got Jiang Zemin doing karaoke, and Clinton on the clarinet. It was a great success.”