POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Nov 6, 2011
The largest gathering of world leaders in the state's history gives a global megaphone to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation that critics of the organization hope to share.
Although such APEC Leaders Meetings produce no legally binding agreements, they have galvanized thousands of protesters at recent gatherings in Japan, South Korea and Australia, raising a range of grievances from the Iraq War to global warming. At last November's APEC meeting, farmers turned out in force in Yokohama, Japan, to resist efforts to open their markets to foreign competition.
"I've been looking at APEC since the 1990s and I think that it is thoroughly clear that while APEC has really been a boon for particular businesses, for many of the people in the APEC countries it's actually been quite devastating," said Nandita Sharma, associate professor of sociology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Critics of APEC in Hawaii say the forum has helped multinational corporations run roughshod over local needs in the region. Its focus on free trade and lifting barriers to commerce, they argue, hurts local businesses and small farmers. Reducing regulations makes it easier for multinationals to operate and extract their profits, at the expense of the environment and workers' rights, they say.
Tung Bui, director of the UH APEC Studies Center, argues that such concerns are more appropriately directed at entities such as the World Trade Organization, which actually handles trade rules and agreements.
"APEC is among the international gatherings that has the most cordial meetings because there is no binding agreement," said Bui, who holds the Matson Navigation Co. chair of global business at the UH Shidler College of Business. "It's just a platform where people get together and share their views. Everybody tries to get a consensus, and all we expect to see in the Honolulu declaration is going to be very general."
Given Hawaii's remote location and its tradition of relaxed hospitality, the street scene is expected to be relatively quiet at the Honolulu APEC conference. So far, just one group -- World Can't Wait Hawaii -- has applied for city permits to stage demonstrations during the Tuesday-through-Sunday summit on Oahu.
Many people in the islands are not familiar with APEC and do not feel a direct connection to it, although that is changing as they learn of road closures and restricted ocean access.
"A month ago, almost no one had heard of APEC," said Carolyn Hadfield, an activist with World Can't Wait Hawaii. "They still don't know anything about what APEC really is."
Along with taking it to the streets, Hawaii residents are organizing alternative forums to raise awareness of APEC and to sketch out a different way forward. "Moana Nui 2011: The Pacific Peoples, their Lands and Economies," set for Wednesday through Friday, will focus on indigenous stewardship of land and resources.
"When you have these big international gatherings, you don't necessarily want to spend your time complaining, though there's a lot to complain about," said Arnie Saiki, coordinator of the conference. "One of the objectives for Moana Nui was to offer a place where Pacific island peoples could actually have a very informed discussion over what could be an alternative Pacific island economy."
Moana Nui's keynote speaker is Walden Bello, a member of the Philippine House of Representatives, co-author of "The American Lake" and a leading critic of corporate globalization. Conference sessions will cover competition over regional resources and how small island nations can maintain or regain control of their economic and cultural viability.
ARTISTS ARE getting involved as well in response to APEC. Alterna*APEC, an informal body of artists and community members, is holding a series of events designed to imagine "what a local economy could be beyond what global businesses propose" and consider the role of art, said Jaimey Hamilton, a UH assistant professor of contemporary art history who heads that project.
At a recent alterna*APEC arts demonstration, an eclectic group gathered at thirtyninehotel in Chinatown, silk-screening T-shirts, painting slogans on recycled cardboard, and even crocheting with brightly colored yarn.
"Especially for an island community, it's important to understand that our resources are finite," said Lauren Ballesteros, a server and community actor who attended the event and hopes to participate in street theater during APEC. "We do have the ability to sustain ourselves."
The weight of the APEC conference lies largely in who attends and the opportunity for dialogue. President Barack Obama will meet with leaders of 20 other nations, including President Hu Jintao of China and President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia. Also participating are the leaders of Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, the Philippines, Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Thailand and Vietnam.
In conjunction with the Leaders Meeting next weekend, business executives from around the region will also gather in Waikiki at the APEC CEO Summit, described as "essentially the board meeting of the Asia-Pacific" by Monica Whaley, president of APEC 2011 US Host Committee. Among them are officials from Boeing, Wal-Mart Asia and Sumitomo Chemical Co.
"The summit is unlike any other event in the world, allowing senior business executives to engage with world leaders and have an immediate impact on economic policy decisions," Whaley said in a statement. "These discussions move markets."
Founded in 1989, APEC champions free trade and investment, economic integration and technical cooperation in the region. A November 2010 assessment of progress toward its goals by APEC's Policy Support Unit noted that trade barriers have fallen across the region, economic growth has outpaced the rest of the world and standards of living have risen.
Bui said he considers APEC's focus on liberalization of trade and investment as "outdated" because so much has been done on that front already. Instead, he said, leaders should take heed of the backdrop for this year's meeting -- the Occupy Wall Street movement against corporate greed.
"In the context of APEC, I would argue that the major problem we are facing this year is the increase of this disparity in income between the rich and the poor," Bui said. "This is not only happening in the developing countries like China and Vietnam and the Philippines, but also in the United States."
He added that he expects that, in their declaration on economic growth, leaders will recognize "that growth has got to be inclusive for everyone -- there should be a fair share for the rich and the poor as well."
Vanessa Chong, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, said it is working with the city to ensure that lawful protesters have room to exercise their rights to free speech. The organization has set up a "Know Your Rights" hot line at 522-5906 and an APEC First Amendment Toolkit on its website.
"The 'know your rights' line will be geared up and monitored frequently so we can respond to problems as they arise," Chong said. "If the city and other officials remain as responsive as they have been, Hawaii has a very good chance of having a good APEC experience. It would be great for Hawaii to show the world that the First Amendment is alive and well in the Aloha State."