Sydney is gearing up for the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, which starts next week. Residents are grumbling about traffic problems security preparations will create, while protesters are preparing to challenge talks on world trade. As Phil Mercer reports from Sydney, Australian Prime Minister John Howard hopes this year's gathering of 21 governments will make substantial progress on tackling climate change.
Starting Sunday, thousands of world leaders, government ministers, business people and protesters will gather for a week in Australia's biggest city.
Much of the city center is being shut down to provide security for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
Businessmen, commuters and other Sydney residents express dismay at the disruption to their daily lives that lies ahead.
"I think it's basically [a] waste of time, to be honest with you. I'm not sure why it's here and why it's not down in Canberra," said a man. "With the blanket security it's obviously costing a lot of money, it's on the news every night and I don't see the benefits of it. I don't see what we're getting out of it."
He is not alone in his complaints.
"A bit of a nuisance, actually," adds a woman. "I think not being able to go into the city on the day and, yeah, just generally I feel like it's going to be a bit of a pain in the neck."
Sydney residents have though been given a sweetener by the authorities, however. There will be an extra public holiday ahead of the leaders meeting on September 8 and 9.
A number of items are up for discussion when officials and leaders of APEC convene.
Regional security, including efforts to thwart North Korea's nuclear ambitions, is certain to be discussed.
U.S. President George Bush also will discuss the situation in Iraq with his Australian host, Prime Minister John Howard, who is a staunch supporter of Washington's policies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the environment is expected to take center stage.
Mr. Howard opposes mandatory targets on carbon emissions if they block economic growth. He says he hopes the Sydney summit will find ways to combat climate change without stifling growth.
"At APEC, we should strive to find agreement on principles for international action that genuinely address the problem, whilst also allowing countries, such as China and Indonesia, to continue to grow and prosper. From Australia's perspective - I can report encouraging reactions from APEC members," he said.
APEC leaders are not expected to endorse mandatory targets for reducing greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, which many scientists blame for warming the earth. Instead non-binding goals are likely to be announced.
That does not sit well with those who say APEC should be more decisive.
Kevin Rudd is the leader of the opposition Labour Party, and opinion polls show him likely to oust Prime Minister Howard in an election due in the next few months. Rudd says the Sydney summit should take a bold stand against global warming.
"Put simply, if APEC can't get its act together on one of the biggest challenges that the world faces today, that is, climate change, the APEC will have no effective future. And the Sydney APEC summit should play a key role in bringing together the economies of the Asia-Pacific to drive practical and affective global action that will solve the problem," he said.
The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum is a loose grouping of 21 economies bordering the Pacific Ocean, which together account for almost half of world trade. They range from economic giants like the United States and China to the smaller economies of Asia and Latin America.
APEC's founding aim was to promote free trade, but in recent years it has also taken positions on a broad range of issues.
Because of its broad scope, APEC is a magnet for thousands of demonstrators, who aim to voice their displeasure on issues ranging from the war in Iraq to controversial Australian labor reforms and the treatment of refugees.
Security measures therefore are the biggest, and most expensive, in Australian history. Fortress-like security has already made parts of the city virtual no-go areas.
Rally organizer Alex Bainbridge says protesters will not be scared away by the security precautions.
"This is part of a seriously intense intimidation campaign, the like of which I've never seen in my experience before," said Bainbridge. "What I think that indicates is that the government is actually very worried. They are vulnerable to the pressure of a people-power movement in the current circumstances."
Despite the grumbling and expected protests, Gerard Henderson, a former Australian government adviser, says APEC has carved out a meaningful role for itself.
"Like all international conferences, it's going to disappoint some people, but I think it's much better having APEC and so APEC over the last 15 years or so has made an important contribution to the economic cooperation in the Asia-Pacific, and to some extent to security in the Asia-Pacific," said Henderson.
Prime Minister Howard has urged Australians to embrace APEC, and says the summit will give this isolated continent a chance to shine on the world stage. The conference will be the biggest diplomatic gathering ever held in Australia.