Rebooting APEC 

APECBy S. M. Hali

China, which is hosting the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) after a gap of 13 years, has ventured to reboot the tepid pace of economic growth in the region. APEC, established in 1989, is a forum for 21 Pacific Rim member economies that seeks to promote free trade and economic cooperation throughout the Asia-Pacific region and meet the challenge of the growing interdependence of their economies and the advent of regional trade blocs in other parts of the world in the persisting gloom of the financial crisis. Three impediments hindered the expected progress of APEC. Firstly, its composition, comprising the most opulent as well as the most impoverished countries, with an imbalanced economic structure contributed to an ad hoc arrangement instead of following a stringent trade understanding like the EU. Secondly, the APEC has been considered as only a forum with a basket of non-obligatory declarations, initiatives and roadmaps, and a regional arrangement born to be a compromise for economically unequal Pacific Rim members. Thirdly, there already existed two major trade negotiations in the region, the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which was unable to bear fruitful results since a significant player like China, a dominant economic and trading partner in Asia was not a member. The other organization, the ASEAN-based Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) did not achieve its full potential since it was devoid of the membership of another key member: the United States, the world’s largest economy and the leading recipient of goods made in Asia. The APEC Summit in Beijing has taken into account the shortcomings of the EU to avoid repeating them while it has also drawn lessons from the stalled Doha Round and taken concrete steps for fueling the regional growth engine to afford a pragmatic, innovative approach of cooperation.

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China’s promotion of Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP) is a practical step to integrate TPP and RCEP and pave the way for China joining the TPP as an observer initially and later join it as a full member. The same standard is applicable to the U.S. attending RCEP as an observer initially and later attaining full membership.

As Chair of APEC-2014, China’s President Xi Jinping executed his responsibility with expediency. In his keynote address titled “The Asia-Pacific stands at a crossroads,” delivered at the opening of the 2014 APEC CEO Summit, Xi took cognizance of the challenges ahead. He reminded the participants of the fragility of some of the economies, still recovering from the impacts of the international financial crisis. Xi reminded the Leaders of the 21 member economies to channel attention towards next generation measures that advance regional economic integration, promote economic reform and innovative development, and strengthen infrastructure investment and comprehensive connectivity; stressing that inaction could leave the region and the entire global economy in a damaging state of flux.

It must be valued that instead of being a “closed club”, open only to executive “access card” holders, APEC welcomes all its members, irrespective of the strength or weakness of their economies to jointly build an open economy in the Asia-Pacific. Openness, an essential criterion, stressed by Xi, brings progress while closed door policy leads to backwardness.

In order to ensure results from the APEC-2014 Summit, the first-ever strategic APEC Connectivity Blueprint on promoting global value chain development and cooperation, as well as a new APEC Accord on Innovative Development, Economic Reform and Growth to foster more sustainable, inclusive economies were tabled.

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Since most trade policies are applied only on the borders, either by tariff or non-tariff measures, another initiative by China on global value chains (GVCs) is expected to provide APEC members the capacity to monitor each links of the value chain to enlarge and improve them.

Some other enterprises launched by China also triggered debate e.g. the Silk Road Economic Belt, the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and establishing the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Interestingly, the U.S. has expressed serious reservations regarding the AIIB, speculating that the AIIB might undercut conditions and policies of existing multilateral development banks, such as Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank, because a development bank should stick to high standards to ensure their projects’ success and protect the interests of investors. On the contrary, the AIIB should not be perceived as a competitor, as it will be complementary to the ADB and the World Bank and the AIIB can work in partnership with these institutions in joint financing thus helping fund larger projects, share more experiences and benefit all. It may be prudent for the US to consider joining the board of AIIB since the world’s largest economy and a major player in Asia should logically be primary shareholder of such an institution.

By rebooting the APEC, the development gap among its members will be narrowed, making the goal for deeper trade achievable.