UNSTOPPABLE WAVE

UNSTOPPABLE WAVE

ven as small knots of protestors made a nuisance of themselves outside the United Nations trade conference in Bangkok, evidence was mounting all around them that the wave of globalization is unstoppable.

It may not be AOL-Time Warner, or Vodafone-AirTouch-Mannesmann, but Asia's cyber-wars are picking up pace.Frantic talks are under way on a merger between Singapore Telecommunications Ltd. and Cable & Wireless HKT, the primary telephone company in Hong Kong. A wedding would create Asia's largest such company after Japan's Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corp.

For SingTel, a merger would give easier access to greater China, leveraging C&W-HKT's close ties with the mainland. The benefit for Cable & Wireless PLC, Britain's No. 2 provider, is shedding a one-time jewel that is now facing increased competition, which will allow the parent to concentrate on Internet telephony and other things.

The prospect of snaring C&W-HKT is so mouth-watering that upstart Pacific Century CyberWorks Ltd. promptly muscled in, suggesting it would raise an initial $1 billion to buy the Hong Kong concern, possibly in conjunction with its Japanese partner and shareholder, Hikari Tsushin Inc.

Pacific Century CyberWorks is the brainchild of Richard Li, a son of Li Ka-shing, who is among Hong Kong's richest men and savviest entrepreneurs. It is building Hong Kong's CyberPort, a cluster of large information-technology companies and smaller support firms backed by broadband telecommunications, media labs, high-speed computers, multimedia equipment and studios.

Hikari Tsushin, a Tokyo-based Internet, telecommunications and investment giant, will be the first tenant, as well as holding equity in PCCW. Intel Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif., the world's largest chip maker, is another shareholder.

It's understood that the Hong Kong and Chinese governments made harumphing noises about a Hong Kong-Singapore telecommunications giant. A tie-up with Li would be more palatable, not least because Li senior is a well-regarded business partner of China and a large philanthropic donor to a variety of causes, especially education.

Elsewhere, four of Hong Kong's biggest old-line companies are joining forces in a $390 million Internet joint venture - iBusinessCorporation.com - that aims to be the dominant service provider and business facilitator by pooling the resources and customer bases of its partners.

Cheung Kong (Holdings) Ltd., flagship of Li Ka-shing, and its Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. unit, plus Hongkong & Shanghai Banking Corp. and its Hang Seng Bank arm, say the venture will have almost unlimited business scope. It plans to offer e-commerce through existing resources, networks and customer bases of the companies, with portals to be launched in coming months.

Services will include business-to-business and business-to-customer transactions in insurance, real estate, procurement, wholesaling and retailing.

Cheung Kong is the largest property developer in Hong Kong. Hutchison operates in everything from property and utilities to retailing and seaports.

To cope with all the anticipated new content, U.S.-based Level 3 Communications Inc. announced plans to build a high-speed, broadband undersea cable system connecting Hong Kong and Tokyo to provide low-cost bandwidth to Internet users.

The system, scheduled for completion by the second quarter of next year, will initially run at 320 gigabits per second, more than eight times the combined existing undersea capacity to and from Hong Kong, Level 3 Communications said.

Meanwhile, back in Bangkok at the summit meeting of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, thousands of delegates, lobbyists and other participants from governments and multinational agencies labored to come up with a vision of globalization.

A senior Thai official said it is time that world economic growth and social progress be equally nurtured to eliminate the gap between developed and developing countries, the rich and the poor.

Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong of Singapore - among the most developed and outward-looking lands in the region - said globalization and technology pose serious dilemmas for many even as they contribute to a more integrated world economy. ''It is now clear that there are as many challenges as opportunities after the Cold War,'' he said.

An integrated world economy does not automatically bring about a politically integrated world, and the ultimate issues are basic questions of conflict and security, Goh said.

All of which is undeniable. But, as business itself proves almost daily, so is the fact of global integration.

Globalization is hardly new; it began with the Industrial Revolution. The way to make it work is to work with it. That means opening economies, eliminating red tape, cracking down on corruption and emphasizing education to spur efficiency. Most of all it means realizing that, while juggernauts may need controls, standing in front of one isn't a wise thing to do.