The last couple of months have not been good for Papua New Guinea. First, the island nation’s namesake airline had its first fatal crash while attempting to land in Chuuk. Then, they hosted the annual APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit. But President Trump skipped this year’s meeting or “summit” and sent Vice President Mike Pence instead.
Perhaps, Trump didn’t want to don the traditional clothing for the group picture, although he did surprisingly pull off the barong in the Philippines last year. Then, the summit ended without a joint statement for the first time in living memory. (By using that phrase, it means if it happened a long time ago, who cares? Plus, it means I don’t have to research every single past summit.).
And finally, in late November, the police and armed forces of PNG have stormed the parliament in Port Moresby in an apparent act of rebellion over lack of overtime payment for covering the APEC events. Someone “forgot” to pay the people with the guns. One can only assume they also won’t get paid for their “overtime” spent attacking their own government.
But the APEC summit in PNG is a failure only by expectations. It had nothing to do with the venue; it had to do with the ongoing disputes between the U.S. and China. Normally, a joint communiqué is signed by all participants. This is because like all big meetings, a joint statement sugarcoats the jagged little pill that meetings — excuse me, “summits” with so many members — are formality than a place of breakthroughs.
If you’ve ever been to a business meeting with more than just a few participants, this isn’t hard to accept. APEC has 21 members, which is one member more than the similarly bloated G20.
\So, communiqués are usually watered-down statements that avoid sensitive issues involving any member states; they stick to popular and obtuse promises. It’s basically one level higher than a beauty pageant contestant’s answer to the question: “What is your vision for the future of Asia-Pacific economic cooperation?” It’s nice to hear, but doesn’t count for much in the end. For example, one of the goals this year was “promoting inclusive and sustainable growth.” But really, who would be publicly against that? No one. Not even Trump, or Xi or anyone in between.
The real negotiations on the real thorny issues happen before or after these summits, either behind the scenes or in more limited bilateral public meetings. Even the fiery Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte skipped some events to take power naps. Or maybe his ongoing feud with local online publication Rappler wore him out. But he attended the entire summit to the end. Which brings us to Mike Pence and his much-publicized stopover here in Guam from his APEC trip. Despite allowing media to attend his short visit with local officials and selected military personnel, he took no questions. Not quite a no-show, but understandably disappointing the local press, this publication included.
Before I digress further, let’s get back to the summit. The group picture was even a cop-out. Normally, world leaders attending a summit don the host country’s national costume. Instead of the colorful traditional wear of the various New Guinea peoples, we only got the group picture with modern wear. At least the beauty pageants still have a swimsuit competition. Correction: they did until the Miss America Pageant decided to do away with it. No more bikinis. I guess that means more of a focus on communiqués and statements of “inclusion and sustainability.” Boring. Sounds like President Trump and Duterte will be skipping more events and taking more naps. Who can blame them?
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Joseph Meyers is a professional pilot and an armchair social commentator. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org