Asians confident at ADB meeting


One after another, the finance ministers and central bankers from across Asia showed the same concern and determination.

Yes, the outlook for the global economy is bleak, they said. Yes, our region will be hurt by the U.S. slowdown and the sudden downturn in the global electronics industry.

But don’t expect to see much of Asia collapse the way it did four years ago with a crisis that damaged financial markets and economies around the world.

“Asia is coming under renewed stress,” said Singapore’s minister, Lim Hong Kiang. “But Asia is better positioned than in the past to absorb and ride out the shocks.”

As the 59 nations of the Asian Development Bank held their 34th-annual meeting in Honolulu this week, many of the Asian members welcomed the fact that the painful, free-market reforms they began to impose during the region’s 1997-98 financial crisis have led to a recovery that now makes Asia the world’s fastest growing region.

The International Monetary Fund recently said that global growth this year should slow to 3.2 percent, compared with 4.8 percent last year — in part because the U.S. economy, the world’s largest, is expected to grow by only 1.5 percent.

In its latest outlook, the ADB said the Asian region — excluding Japan, Australia and New Zealand — would see a slowdown in growth to 5.3 percent from 7.1 percent in 2000. But, it said, that would be followed by a rebound to 6.1 percent in 2002.

As the ADB, an international lending agency, ended its annual meeting Friday, its ministers welcomed the fact that they had escaped the kind of large and violent anti-globalization protests that had disrupted many other international economic forums.

On Wednesday, about 500 protesters gathered outside the Hawaii Convention Center to criticize what they regard as the ADB’s failure to achieve its primary goal: reduce widespread poverty across the Asia-Pacific region. Organizers had predicted thousands of demonstrators.

Carrying signs and shouting slogans, the protesters criticized the growing divide between rich and poor in today’s competitive global market, and the growing dominance of Western multinational corporations and chain stores such as the GAP, Starbucks and McDonald’s.

But the protesters dispersed peacefully after ADB President Tadao Chino of Japan went out into the streets to accept their list of demands and say he would consider them.

On Friday night, a bomb threat led the Honolulu Symphony to cancel a concert at the Blaisdell Concert Hall. Stephen Bloom, symphony executive director, said symphony officials assumed the threat had something to do with the bank meetings. Police declared the building secure less than 30 minutes later.

As usual, the ADB took few actions during its annual meeting as its members from Asia, Europe and the Americas discussed their economies and the ADB’s goals.

For instance, Chino told reporters he was “very much encouraged” by the recent decision by the military government in Myanmar to hold private talks with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and to allow a European Union delegation to visit the Southeast Asian nation.

But the ADB made no decision about Myanmar’s request for the bank to drop its 1986 suspension all financial assistance to the country, also known as Burma, because of what the ADB regards as its widespread human rights abuses.

North Korea’s request to become an ADB member also appeared to be ignored, despite South Korea’s request for ADB members to support its efforts to promote reconciliation with the North and to encourage the reclusive communist country to reach out to the rest of the world.

The United States, one of the ADB’s top shareholders, did not appear to drop its opposition to loans to a country that it regards as a terrorist state.

Like other officials, U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill held bilateral meetings with other ADB nations. They included the highest-level meeting Washington has held with China since a U.S. spy plane crashed into a Chinese warplane over the South China Sea on April 1.

O’Neill and Chinese Finance Minister Xiang Huaicheng did not discuss their countries’ dispute over the return of the U.S. plane, which is still being held on China’s Hainan island, where it made an emergency landing. But Xiang told reporters that the dispute should not be allowed to undermine the growing business ties between the two countries.

On the sidelines of the ADB convention, its Southeast Asian member nations met privately with China, Japan and South Korea and announced a currency swap agreement.

Under the deal, Japan, the world’s second largest economy, agreed to quickly loan South Korea, Thailand and Malaysia several million dollars in the U.S. currency if their own currencies are battered by sudden swings in today’s turbulent financial markets. Japan said it was talking with the Philippines and China about striking similar deals.

The currency swap agreements were the first sign that an Asiawide currency safety net first proposed more than a year ago is beginning to take shape.

The deals came at a time when many of the stock and currency markets across the Asia-Pacific region are suffering sharp declines, as a result of the global economic slowdown, but nowhere near as bad as the ones during the Asian crisis.