APEC’S always in fashion

November 8, 2010

CHILEOne of the most closely guarded secrets at the APEC summit in Japan’s port city of Yokohama this weekend is not what the Asia-Pacific leaders might say about currencies and global imbalances. No, that’s all going to be thrashed out at the G20 meeting Thursday and Friday in Seoul. The big topic of speculation here at the Pacifico Yokohama Convention Center is what the leaders will wear when they gather for the annual class photo that concludes the meetings.

U.S. President George W. Bush (L) and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin wear Chilean ponchos at APEC meeting  in Santiago in 2004. REUTERS

The last time Japan hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit was 1995 in Osaka. There the leaders, apparently trying to depict the Japan Salaryman look, came out in business suits. Nobody remembers much about that APEC meeting, except that it took place in the magnificent, gold-embellished Osaka Castle. 

In fact, APEC summits are rarely memorable for much beyond the fashion show and the intriguing historical settings in which they are often staged. The 1994 summit in Bogor, Indonesia is enshrined in the annals of APEC for the “Bogor Goals” that were agreed there. Leaders committed to achieving “free and open trade and investment” by 2010 for developed economies and 2020 for developing ones, giving the group its blueprint for the future. The 21 summiteers in Yokohama are expected to declare that the five industrialised members have passed their Bogor tests. Another eight in the developing wing have asked to be assessed as well, proud of their record in cutting tariffs and red tape.

I covered the 1994 summit, when Bill Clinton famously kept Indonesian President Suharto waiting and pacing on the portico of the 18th-century Bogor Palace. Everyone was watching Bill work the crowds, while Suharto ostentatiously looked at his watch, peacocks screeching in the bushes. I’ve covered nearly half of the annual summits since they began in Seattle in 1993 when Clinton began the fashion show tradition by outfitting the leaders in black leather bombardier jackets. That was kind of a cool look for everybody.indonesia

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton (3rd from left) joins Indonesian President Suharto (to Clinton’s right) in waving to the media at the 1994 summit in Bogor, Indonesia. REUTERS

 Since then they’ve been decked out in native attire ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous.  Previous meetings have seen the leaders don Chilean ponchos, Chinese silk jackets, batik shirts, Korean Hanboks, Vietnamese silk tunics, Mexican sombreros, New Zealand sailing  jackets, and Australian Drizabone raincoats. The funniest photo has to be the one from the Santiago summit in 2004 when they all trundled out in Chilean ponchos that made them look they were auditioning for a part in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Vladimir Putin looked like he had been stuffed inside a box made of raccoon skins in his chamanto.

Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan, dealing with a bunch of headaches right now, including an ongoing dispute with China over islands in the South China Sea, has not breathed a word about what the leaders will wear in Yokohama. The early betting is that it will have a kimono theme, once the garment of choice for samurai, aristocrats and workers alike.APEC/JAPAN

The APEC  Leaders’ parade does serve a useful purpose. First of all, it delights the photographers and TV camerman who have been working day and night for a week  to take excruciatingly boring images of talking heads. The show gives everybody a chuckle as they ponder the fact that once again the Leaders’ Declaration has said essentially very little of substance. The group operates by consensus and has no framework to negotiate binding agreements. It’s biggest achievement may well be its annual show of harmony and singing  kumbaya in a region of great power rivalries and geopolitical tensions.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (front R) shakes hand with Japan’s Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda at the end of their joint new conference at the APEC Finance Ministers meeting in Kyoto, western Japan November 6, 2010. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Having everybody dress up in the same goofy costume that makes some leaders look a bit foolish is at least an attempt at showing solidarity, even when they are feuding with each other, as Japan and China are now. And that serves a purpose, however silly it may seem.

P.S. U.S. President Barack Obama will host next year’s summit in Honolulu. He hasn’t said a word about the leaders’ costumes. But don’t bet against the hula skirt.

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