Leaders, Ministers, senior officials and business people from the 21 economies from APEC – Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation – gather this week in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, the first time this Pacific economy has hosted. Trade, investment, inclusive and sustainable development and the digital economy are high on the agenda, but overhanging the gathering is the spectre of trade war and rising protectionism.
If APEC didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it. Since its establishment in 1989 to promote the growing interdependence and integration of the region, APEC has become the pre-eminent economic co-operation forum for Asia Pacific economies. The body is entirely voluntary and non-binding – at the same time its greatest strength and greatest weakness: strength, because APEC is the ideal policy incubator where new ideas can be tried and tested; weakness, because APEC’s pronouncements can lack teeth and sometimes it fails spectacularly to deliver. For example, APEC has been talking since 1994 about creating free and open trade in the region by 2020 but, to put it politely, there is still some way to go to achieve this vision fully.
If APEC didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it
What’s in a name?
In the last 29 years APEC has become part of the regional furniture. Leaders meet every year and put on fancy shirts and disrupt the traffic of the city which hosts their meeting (stand by Auckland, you’re up in 2021). In fact, the event is much bigger than Leaders and involves thousands of officials and business people. APEC’s policy agenda covers a vast swathe of issues which go beyond trade and investment and to the heart of the way economies deliver prosperity, security and sustainability for their citizens. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters and Trade and Export Growth Minister David Parker are all attending. Business has a voice at the table through the APEC Business Advisory Council (ABAC) – New Zealand’s representatives Phil O’Reilly and Tenby Powell, supported by Stephen Jacobi, will be in Port Moresby. (New Zealand’s third member Katherine Rich and policy advisor Stephanie Honey will not attend this time.) In February this year we hosted the first ABAC meeting for 2018 in Auckland. That meeting kicked off the preparation of ABAC’s annual report to APEC Economic Leaders which will be presented in a direct dialogue in Port Moresby on 17 November.
Although APEC is the main game in town, there is a new competitor on the block. The United States, Australia, India and Japan are promoting another grouping – the Indo-Pacific – both as an alternate grouping and one which includes India. (India does not participate in APEC, so misses out on this regular habit of co-operation which has helped the cohesion of the region.) There is a long way to go for the Indo-Pacific to attain the grunt and status of APEC. New Zealand is not opposed to this but, as Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters has made clear, prefers, for reasons as much of geography more than anything else, to stick with the Asia Pacific terminology.
What’s on the agenda for PNG?
PNG joined APEC in 1993 and is one of the smallest and least developed members. The meeting is a chance to draw attention to the country’s development needs and the specific challenges they face particularly in this digital age. PNG has guided the development of the agenda this year which has focused on creating the conditions of inclusive growth and making globalization work better for all, including vulnerable economies and those within economies including women who may not have benefited fully in the past. This includes attention to issues of governance which in PNG are a particular challenge.
PNG and its tiny public service have chosen a helluva time to try to conduct the orchestra. Whereas at past meetings there was wide consensus about the value of regional economic integration the same cannot be said today. President Trump will not be attending, but Vice President Pence will be there and will doubtless share his views on multilateralism and APEC’s vision for open trade and investment. Chinese President Xi Jinping will also be present and more than willing to fill any vacuum of leadership as well as share his country’s largesse with New Zealand’s Pacific neighbours. The infrastructure and development needs of the Pacific are great and New Zealand has a great opportunity to improve the quality of aid delivery by working with all the great powers in the region. New Zealand also has a major interest in resisting protectionism as well as creating a better environment for regional trade through an expanded CPTPP agreement.
It is good that the region’s Leaders can come together at APEC to talk and strategise about a better future. As PM Jacinda Ardern put it in her Armistice Day speech “multilateralism, peace and inclusion” are the values we need to guide us. The challenge, as ever, is to find ways to create lasting impact from summitry such as we will see at APEC this week. Putting the “P” in Asia Pacific is something New Zealand can continue when we host APEC in 2021.
This post was prepared by Stephen Jacobi, Executive Director of the NZ International Business Forum and Alternate Member of ABAC.