Thousands of delegates have begun high-level discussions in Busan, South Korea, ahead of the annual two-day leaders' meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. High on their agenda is expanding trade for the region, but pressing issues such as the threat from bird flu and terrorism also are being covered.
Officials say formulating a regional strategy to confront a potential avian influenza pandemic will be one of the most closely watched items on the voluminous agenda for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
Ahead of the initial discussions, the executive director of the APEC Secretariat, Choi Seok Young, called on the leaders of the 21 APEC member economies to formulate a unified regional response on bird flu. Ambassador Choi warned that if APEC members do not work together to share information and prepare for a pandemic, there could be dire consequences in terms of human suffering and the region's economy.
Regional worries about terrorism also will feature prominently at APEC's meeting in Busan, South Korea.
It is nuts-and-bolts economic issues, however, that are supposed to be at the core of the discussions when the APEC leaders gather (on November 11 and 12). Northeast Asia analyst Balbina Hwang of the Heritage Foundation in Washington says she hopes there will be progress on these issues.
"Intellectual property rights, issues about coordinating regulatory policies, further dialogue on reducing trade barriers; hopefully they'll be able to integrate some of the bilateral, trilateral and other regional, sub-regional free trade agreements that are on around the region," she said.
The agenda for this year's summit includes renewing the group's commitment to what are known as the Bogor Goals. Those goals, set at the 1994 APEC summit in Indonesia, call for free and open trade in goods and investment throughout the region by 2020. The developed APEC economies are to meet that target by 2010.
When APEC was established in 1989, it was meant to eschew politics and focus on facilitating economic growth, trade and investment in the Asia-Pacific region. The group endeavors to reach commitments that are voluntary rather than obligatory. And by considering the 21 APEC members "economies" rather than "nations," it is able to include such members as Taiwan, which is known to APEC as Chinese Taipei, at the insistence of the mainland government in Beijing.
Ms. Hwang of the Heritage Foundation says the present realities for APEC are different than the parameters erected when the forum was established.
"It was feared at the time that any kind of focus on the politics would ensure its own demise. Now, of course, the focus on the economics is not nearly enough," added Ms. Hwang. "And I think that everybody that participates in APEC realizes this, so there really is this dance around the issues trying to get to the core of the matter."
What matters to many are the political discussions, although here in Japan, Foreign Ministry spokesman Akira Chiba says his government wants APEC to keep its focus on economic issues.
"The APEC process has been very careful about keeping a distance from political issues, and this is the entire spirit of what makes it APEC," he said. "There may be some political issues among some economies, but being economies and not countries, in this forum we would like to tackle the issues without going into political issues."
That wish aside, Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will meet privately with South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, the host of this year's APEC meeting.
The Japanese delegation arrives at APEC at a time of considerable tension with its neighbors, especially China and South Korea, which have expressed concern about rising nationalism in Japan. Tokyo also has unresolved territorial disputes with both Beijing and Seoul.
But Mr. Chiba at the Japanese Foreign Ministry says Tokyo is not going to gauge success of the summit based on the number of sidebar meetings.
"The prime minister's schedule is going to be very tight," he said. "We're not anticipating a lot of bilaterals taking place."
APEC members also are likely to find themselves discussing North Korea's nuclear-weapons program. South Korea, the United States, Japan, China and Russia have been negotiating at length with Pyongyang, trying to persuade the North Koreans to give up their nuclear programs, which represent a string of broken international promises.