APEC: From Free Trade to Fear Trade

– Sundaram

What do free trade, terrorism and bird flu have in common?

Plenty if one goes by the fact these three seemingly disparate issues formed the agenda of the latest summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), held at the pretty beach town of Busan in South Korea.

Free trade of course dominated discussions among the APEC leaders who called for finalisation of the Doha round of global trade talks at the WTO Ministerial meeting in Hong Kong this December.

But it was also amply clear from the sombre mood at this summit of some of the richest and most powerful countries in the world- from the US and Canada to Japan and China- that they did not expect any great breakthroughs in Hong Kong.  

Like at the collapsed WTO talks in Cancun, Mexico a few years ago this time too the sticking point is going to be the refusal of developed countries to cut subsidies for their farmers and open up their labour markets to competition from the developing world. Without these concessions developing countries are expected to refuse to open their own markets for influx of goods and services from richer nations.

But unlike what some anti-globalization protestors gathered in Busan might have thought, the failure to achieve a global trade deal is no longer a cause of worry for the United States, the world’s loneliest superpower, that virtually dictates and directs APEC’s annual agenda.

For over the past five or six years, ever since the WTO talks started floundering due to resistance from developing countries against the unfair trade rules being imposed on them, the US has been abandoning the multilateral approach for a unilateral one. While the US during the Clinton presidency did use the WTO as its main battering ram to smash open markets around the world in the period of mad King George there has been a seachange in policy and the idea now is to use Free Trade Agreements (FTA) and bilateral deals to achieve the same objectives.

In fact the most significant intervention made at the APEC discussions this year was from global business representatives who called for a ‘standardisation’ of rules that make up all FTAs anywhere. In other words if there are a uniform set of trade rules agreed (or imposed) upon lots of small zones around the world that would be as good as one big global trade deal at the WTO.

These rules, negotiated by the US directly with much less powerful nations, would of course be entirely skewed in its own favour. Not just that, a network of FTAs encircling the globe would be even better since these could then exclude all the recalcitrant nations in Asia, Africa or Latin America that are failing to fall into line at the WTO.

Adding to this change of US strategy is also another very important factor – the rise of strong protectionist lobbies within the US itself that realize that their country no longer has the global edge in terms of technology, quality or pricing of services to survive intense competition. A recent pompous statement by George Bush Jr. that called free trade a ‘moral imperative’ was rebuffed by Christian conservative commentators in the US who pointed out that there is nothing ‘moral’ about it as the Bible makes no mention of free trade at all!!

In other words what the developing world needs to really watch out for is the way the US is shifting its strategies to work global arrangements that suit its interest the best - all professed ideology and past rhetoric be damned. This is important for the anti-globalisation movement also to understand as it is currently fixated with fighting institutions like the WTO, World Bank and IMF failing to understand these are only paper tigers the US has put up while the real beast lurks somewhere else.

So where is the real beast hiding and what does it plan to do? It is while answering this question that the mystery of why free trade, terrorism and bird flu were clubbed together at the APEC meet gets solved.

To put it very bluntly, in my opinion the US has already moved on from the strategy of pushing ‘free trade’ to that of promoting ‘fear trade’.

It is a strategy that was probably conceived at least a decade ago following the end of the Cold War. Deprived of the excuse of the Soviet threat it became difficult for the US to justify large spending on militarization, which in turn is a key component of the entire US economy itself.

So starting in the early nineties the US propaganda machine has been desperately searching for new enemies and inventing them where necessary all in a desperate bid to scare its population into spending more and more on defence. Promoting war and invading weaker countries like Iraq and Afghanistan also plays the role of scaring governments around the world into giving the US all kinds of concessions that they would not have in a normal situation.

The events of September 11, 2001 gave US elites the perfect excuse to push this agenda forward with their bogus ‘War on Terror’. If one looks at the subsequent huge increases in the US military budget, the rise in oil prices that enriches its close allies like Saudi Arabia and the reversal of global trends inimical to US business interests the importance of the ‘fear’ strategy becomes clear.

But where does bird flu fit into all this? After all why would a superpower like the United States of America mobilize the world to against mere chicken? (‘We could not get Bin Laden so instead we want to go after softer targets like chicken!’)

I will be honest and say that I am not qualified to comment on whether or not bird flu will ever really turn into a global pandemic and kill hundreds of millions of people as the media hype claims it will.

All I know is that so far this variant of flu has killed only around 65 people in three years since it emerged in southeast Asia - a number smaller the people killed in road accidents every day anywhere in Asia. And a number way, way less than the children dying of malaria every day in Africa.

I also know that the global panic surrounding bird flu is being used as an excuse by developed countries to tighten rules governing immigration from the developing world. You may not be a terrorist or an economic refugee but hey you may be carrying some dangerous microbes - so we can’t let you in anymore!!

To top all this up I also know that the company that holds the patent rights for Tamiflu, a drug currently stockpiled in millions of doses by countries around the globe, is a pharmaceutical company in California called Gilead Sciences. And guess who was the Chairman of this company till just five years ago and continues to be an important shareholder? Of course who else but Uncle Donald Rumsfeld himself - the great warrior against terrorists has hedged his bets against viruses too!

At US$60 for a course of Tamiflu there is a lot of money involved. And where there is money there is serious manipulation- at the highest levels.