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Thirty years of APEC summits

Posted By on November 17, 2023 @ 06:00

The APEC summit in San Francisco this week offers poignant echoes and painful contrasts with the first summit in Seattle 30 years ago.

Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation is always ‘four adjectives in search of a noun’, a wry line [1] from Gareth Evans. Yet the terms and tone of APEC’S quest transformed in the journey from Seattle in 1993 to San Francisco in 2023.

The geoeconomic optimism of the Asia–Pacific has been replaced by the geopolitical competition of the Indo-Pacific. The ‘Cooperation’ bit in APEC’s name is embattled. Render the ‘C’ today as ‘Competition’. And the ‘Economic’ ambitions turn to de-risking and decoupling.

San Francisco this week aimed to keep the show on the road and offered the venue for cautious repair and reflection by China’s Xi Jinping and the US’s Joe Biden.

APEC’s current horizons are dark, whereas 30 years ago, the vistas were broad. The weather metaphor misleads in one way, because Seattle was the wintriest talkfest I covered, far chillier than later northern hemisphere summits in Osaka (1995), Vancouver (1997) and Shanghai (2001).

In Seattle, the leaders dressed for the cold. The APEC tradition of funny shirts was launched the following year, in Bogor, when Indonesia’s Suharto got them all into batik.

While the sleet blew in the day after the Seattle communiqué was released, for foreign policy wonks and tragics that first summit was a Wordsworth [2] moment: ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.’

Seldom do you get a leaders’ meeting where the optimism seems natural rather than scripted and the promise of the new is more than diplomatic bloviating. In Seattle, the Cold War was safely dead, globalisation was the rocket taking off and Asia’s era had arrived.

Boarding the ferry for Blake Island in Seattle’s Puget Sound, the leaders were all in the boat going the same way. The statement they issued on the island hailed their ‘unprecedented meeting’, reflecting ‘the emergence of a new voice [3] for the Asia Pacific in world affairs’. The 21st century could belong to this newly imagined region with 40% of the world’s population and 50% of its GNP.

Australia and Japan quietly glowed at how they’d brought APEC to life. The Canberra–Tokyo intermingling of effort over decades had a culminating moment in Seattle.

Back in 1968, the Pacific Basic Economic Council had been formed as an extension of the Australia–Japan Business Cooperation Committee. The ‘Pacific Community seminar’ Japan and Australia ran in Canberra in 1980 became the second-track Pacific Economic Cooperation Council. The government-level step-up was the first APEC ministerial meeting in Canberra in 1989. And then with plenty of urging from Australia’s Paul Keating, US President Bill Clinton gathered the leaders in 1993.

Leveraging a nod of agreement from Suharto and a Japanese commitment, Keating pitched the summit idea to Clinton during their first White House meeting. Keating said he’d told Clinton, ‘A drop of interest and authority [4] from you, and I’ll be able to pull all this together.’

As Clinton later joked, Keating knew how ‘to punch the frog’ to get an idea hopping.

Keating said Clinton couldn’t resist the intellectual opportunity of APEC: ‘I said, “Look Bill, we’re from fraternal parties. I’m doing all the legwork. I’m gifting this thing to you. All you’ve got to do is be big enough to take the gift.”’

The trade idea Australia and Japan injected into APEC was ‘open regionalism’.

The open regionalism theology reflected Japan’s nightmare of trade blocs in Europe and America, plus Australia’s experience of unilaterally smashing its own tariff walls. Open regionalism preached that the free-trade targets APEC set itself for 2010 and 2020 would be voluntary and non-binding. APEC’s job would be to offer persuasion and peer pressure, while keeping score as each nation marched to the free-trade goals.

The optimism lasted five years. The APEC summit in Kuala Lumpur in 1998 was a crunch moment for each country to embrace ‘early and voluntary’ liberalisation of trade barriers in areas identified by APEC.

Asia, though, was already reeling from the 1997 Asian financial crisis. And in KL the country that had done the most to create the vision of open regionalism plunged a sword into its heart. Japan refused to cut protection for its forests and fisheries sectors; what APEC was asking of Tokyo was so domestically sensitive as to be politically impossible.

The sixth APEC summit in KL was when the broad vistas of that first Seattle gathering started to shrink and sink. Since then, APEC has been characterised by a ‘strange combination [5] of a loss of direction and mission creep’. Far from running the game, APEC runs to stay relevant to the game.

One constant is APEC’s useful role as a neutral space for leaders to do individual business. Seattle was the first meeting between the presidents of China and the US since the Tiananmen Square massacre. The highpoint in San Francisco this week is the Xi–Biden meeting.

The biggest then-and-now contrast is the paucity of the US contribution to the trade discussion, compared with Washington’s dominance 30 years ago. The US has marginalised itself [6] from new efforts at regional integration.

A rich new era of Asian commerce [7] arrives, yet US protectionism means it will have ‘fewer economic carrots [8] to offer’ and US ‘economic and political sway will be diminished’, as The Economist notes. ‘America will retain influence over Asian security, but its economic importance will decline.’

APEC still influences the language of the trade discussion. But the free-trade effort getting all the attention is the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, lauded by Canberra trade types as pre-eminent [9] because of its ‘ambitious scope [10] and high quality standards and rules’.

The ambition and scope were injected by the US in the original TPP, but Washington walked away from all that and zoomed off into an era of protectionism and industry policy. China is more interested in getting into the CPTPP than the US, although Beijing faces huge policy hurdles [11] (subsidies to state-owned enterprises, intellectual property protection, barriers to digital trade and labour rights).

The concept of a trade ‘region’ stretches, from the Asia–Pacific to the Indo-Pacific. And that regional stretch snaps in the CPTPP, which welcomes the United Kingdom as its newest member.

The 30 years of APEC summits show that meetings on the mount do service by commission and omission—by delicate deferral as well as communiqué. The achievements list has several columns, including ‘successfully done’ and ‘successfully avoided’.

Substance mixes with symbolism, and oft times it’s difficult to pick the reality beneath reams of rhetoric. The beauty of summit season is that it comes around annually. The continuum counts.

After 30 years, APEC still demonstrates a Delphic truth: the meeting is the message.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/thirty-years-of-apec-summits/

URLs in this post:

[1] wry line: http://gevans.org/speeches/old/1994/141094_fm_australiaandtheemerging.pdf

[2] Wordsworth: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45518/the-french-revolution-as-it-appeared-to-enthusiasts-at-its-commencement

[3] new voice: https://www.apec.org/meeting-papers/leaders-declarations/1993/1993_aelm

[4] drop of interest and authority: https://www.thenewdaily.com.au/life/entertainment/books/2015/11/12/paul-keating-talking-dirty-bill-clinton

[5] strange combination: https://www.brookings.edu/articles/apec-the-challenge-of-remaining-relevant/

[6] marginalised itself: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/us-led-indo-pacific-framework-isnt-shifting-regional-trade-away-from-china/

[7] new era of Asian commerce: https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2023/09/19/how-asia-is-reinventing-its-economic-model

[8] fewer economic carrots: https://www.economist.com/leaders/2023/09/21/what-asias-economic-revolution-means-for-the-world

[9] pre-eminent: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2023/jul/15/no-chance-china-will-join-pacific-trade-pact-in-near-term-australia-warns

[10] ambitious scope: https://www.dfat.gov.au/trade/agreements/in-force/cptpp/comprehensive-and-progressive-agreement-for-trans-pacific-partnership

[11] policy hurdles: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/will-china-end-its-deep-freeze-of-australia-to-join-the-cptpp/

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