Guest post: Singapore slings and regional economic integration

Guest post from Katherine Rich, CEO of the New Zealand Food and Grocery Council and a member of the APEC Business Advisory Council.

 How to keep connecting Asia-Pacific economies in the face of challenges such as rising anti-trade feeling and disruptive new technologies was a central question at an Executive Roundtable I attended in Singapore, hosted by the US National Center for APEC.

The powerhouse APEC region is of course central to New Zealand’s prosperity, with a market of more than three billion people taking over half of our exports and supplying much of our foreign investment. We had some useful discussions in Singapore on the importance of breaking down blockages in food trade, including non-tariff barriers, and the nexus between food, trade and health – a topic that doesn’t normally get much attention but makes an important contribution to both “food security” and broader social goals.

Not surprisingly, the future of TPP and the attitude of the new US Administration to trade cast a long shadow, with several commenting that economic and geo-strategic uncertainties were already prompting greater business caution on investment. Across the board, however, speakers (including Tami Overby of the US Chamber of Commerce) stressed the imperative of greater regional integration.   Vu Tien Loc of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (and Chairman of this year’s APEC CEO Summit in November) commented that it would not be possible to stop globalisation, even if some wanted to – “We need more connectivity, not less, and we need sustainable and inclusive integration.”   In keeping with that theme, APEC Executive Director (and Kiwi) Alan Bollard reminded participants about the huge importance of the services sector, but cautioned that APEC had a long way to go to equal the scale and sophistication of services trade in Europe and elsewhere.   Ho Meng Kit, CEO of the Singapore Business Federation, highlighted the value of international education, which is of course a sector of keen interest to New Zealand.

Many speakers also emphasised the huge potential of Asia – a “vast pool of untapped consumption”.   Author and academic Parag Khanna, noting that “Who rules the supply chain, rules the world,” emphasised the continued dominance of the Asia region particularly as a result of cross-regional value chains, citing China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative.

Finally the potential for new technologies to disrupt trade and economic models was also discussed at length.   Maria Ressa, CEO of online media outlet Rappler, highlighted the evolution of social media and its significant impacts on long-established models of public debate and political discourse.     Scott Price of Walmart talked about the potential for ‘curated online experiences’ for retail. Others emphasied the huge growth in e-Commerce in the region. All in all, it was an excellent two days of discussions – appropriately signed off with a thirst-quenching Singapore Sling!

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