Fri, 26 Aug 1994

Pacific business networking

We did not expect much from the inaugural meeting of the Asia- Pacific Business Network (APB Net) which ended in Jakarta yesterday with six points of policy suggestions for the Asia- Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. After all, it was the first of such forums organized by businessmen from among the APEC members.

In fact, the idea of the APB Net was conceived only last March during the meeting of the APEC Working Group on Trade Promotion in Bali. It was not endorsed by senior APEC officials until May. But the participation of more than 200 businessmen from 16 of APEC's 17 members in the meeting proved that the forum did serve some purpose.

The idea of the need for a separate forum for the private sectors of APEC members was initially confused with the Pacific Business Forum (PBF) which was recommended by the first APEC leaders meeting in Seattle last November. The Indonesian and Australian chambers of commerce had to undertake an intensive information campaign to explain the different functions of the two forums.

The business community apparently is afraid that the PBF would not be able to fully represent its interests in the decision- making machinery of APEC. Indeed, the PBF smacks more of an official forum rather than a businessmen's forum because its membership, which is limited to two from each member economy was appointed by government. Indonesian representatives in the PBF, for example, are A.R. Ramly and Bustanil Arifin, who are both retired officials.

The APB Net thus seems to have a right to exist because it is an initiative by the business communities of APEC members and it is action oriented, while the PBF serves more as an advisory committee on business development policies.

Yesterday's agreement to convene the second APB Net meeting in Japan next year seems to prove the need for a fully private business forum within APEC.

Indeed, the business community should have an avenue for conveying input for the trade and business development policies to be made by the various APEC working groups and committees, as well as the Pacific Business Forum. After all, it is the business communities in the APEC members who are the main players in whatever forms of economic cooperation are developed under the APEC forum. Any policies made by APEC will be rendered meaningless if they are not translated by the businessmen into economic linkages through business joint ventures or trade ties.

The question, though, is whether setting up another forum, such as the APB Net, will be the most effective and efficient way to achieve that objective. The press statement issued at the end of the meeting yesterday did not mention anything about the structure of the APB Net, nor about its membership and mechanism of operations.

Instead, some of the working programs the APB Net said it would implement face the risk of duplicating the work being done by the APEC Working Groups on Trade and Investment Data and on Trade Promotion.

The programs for exchanging data base and economic information between members may duplicate the APECNet which carries and conveys the trade, investment and general economic data of APEC members. And the plan to hold a seminar on small and medium-scale business development in Australia early next year may overlap with the work of APEC's Expert Meeting on the same topic.

It is simply all right if businessmen from APEC members agree to meet annually under a loose and unstructured forum before APEC's ministerial meeting. But perhaps, the most effective way to ensure that the business community will have a say, or influence, in the APEC decision making process is for APEC leaders to allow for adequate businessman participation in the work of the various working groups, committee and expert teams of the forum.