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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

APEC Slammed as 'Irrelevant'

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Business leaders have criticized an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit that ended in Bangkok on Tuesday as too bureaucratic, out of touch with the man on the street and lacking ambition on global free trade.

The businessmen, who paid $3,000 to network and rub shoulders with the likes of Chinese President Hu Jintao and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell at an APEC chief executive officer summit, said the 21-member grouping needed to communicate better.

APEC, which took off in the early 1990s with a summit in the Indonesian town of Bogor, aims to free trade by 2010 for its developed countries, and by 2020 for its developing economies.

The grouping stretches from Chile to China and includes the United States and Russia, as well as economic minnow Papua New Guinea.

"Unless progress is made, people will go around thinking APEC is just leaders going around in funny shirts once a year, traveling in cavalcades in tight security and attending huge banquets," Peter Charlton, chairman of an Australia's First Charlton Communications, told a packed ballroom in a plush Bangkok hotel.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra rolled out the red-carpet for his fellow leaders used the event, which always ends with a group photograph of the leaders clad in a traditional garment given by the host, to showcase the country.

In the summit, the United States put global security at the heart of the talks while several countries agreed on the sidelines that they would negotiate bilateral free trade deals.

The businessmen said the leaders should have concentrated on reviving World Trade Organization free trade talks, which collapsed at a meeting in Cancun, Mexico, last month because of disagreements between rich and poor countries.

"There's a lot of talk of Bogor goals, Bogor goals, Bogor goals, but what does it mean when APEC can't agree in Cancun?" said Hernan Somerville, chairman of the Chilean Association of Banks.

"What's the point of a nonbinding group which can't take a common position on a major issue?"

The leaders issued a declaration backing global free trade talks, which mostly take place at WTO headquarters in Geneva. But this was not enough for many at the business leaders' gathering.

Mari Pangestu, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Indonesia, said she phoned a friend working on the WTO negotiations to tell him about the declaration.

"His response was 'APEC who?' It won't make a difference to what goes on in Geneva."