APEC 2021: Leaders, dreamers, traders

APEC EDITORIAL: What are these great global talkfests actually achieving? And do they still succeed if instead of a year of face-to-face meetings and interactions, they all happen through Zoom?

Turns out, even with a pandemic, they do. APEC is a conference like no other. Born out of an enthusiasm for trade liberalization at the end of the Cold War, it is surrounded by its own set of idealistic rules.

This is not a conference, but rather a somewhat obscure name of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. It is not about countries, but “economies”. There aren’t supposed to be flags.

In a sense, it dates back to the perceived ideological victory at the end of the Cold War: liberal capitalist democracy had triumphed, now it was a question of integrating into the US-led world order and continuing to raise the standard of living in the region.

A meeting of APEC ministers.

APEC2021 / Provided

A meeting of APEC ministers.

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APEC was an idealistic vehicle that aimed to separate economic cooperation in the region and to break down tariff barriers and protectionism, away from broader geopolitical concerns.

That’s why we captioned the coverage of APEC 2021 with: The Leaders, The Dreamers, The Traders.

This is national leadership and host nation leadership each year. When each nation leads APEC, it places its own imprimatur on the one-year work program. There aren’t necessarily many results every year unless the host country is pushed by the host country, which takes over the agenda for the year. By all accounts – and some of the experts who appear in our coverage here – New Zealand has performed well. It is steered at the political level by the Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Trade. At the civil servant level, it is overseen by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Then there are the dreamers: APEC is, like all multilateral forums, driven by idealism at its heart. That by nations working together, mutual benefits can be achieved by all. In the case of APEC, the main objective is to increase the incomes and standard of living of all nations in the wider Asia-Pacific region.

It has sought since the early 1990s to do so by reducing tariff and non-tariff trade barriers, increasing the ease of doing business across borders and, more recently, taking into account the externalities created by free exchange. While everyone benefits from free trade globally, there may be regional or national losers.

Nanaia Mahuta.  pushed the thread to include indigenous economies in APEC's work plan over the next decades.


Nanaia Mahuta. pushed the thread to include indigenous economies in APEC’s work plan over the next decades.

Hence the focus now on inclusive growth and New Zealand’s push, led by Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta, to small and medium enterprises, indigenous growth and women in business. As Thomas Manch wrote in his extensive read on APEC’s accomplishments, adding indigenous economies to the discussions required the intervention of a determined New Zealand.

Then, of course, there are the traders. In a sense, making life easier for trade is the whole purpose of APEC. By liberalizing trade and making it easier and more fluid, each nation can focus on its own comparative advantage and thereby improve its wealth and standard of living. It is about bringing goods and services to market at lower cost, harnessing digital technology to further break down barriers and ensuring that trade leaves little behind, thus avoiding the emergence of barriers. mini Donald Trumps in the area.

The whole business relies on these three groups of people pursuing a set of common and practical goals. As much as APEC is framed by noble ideals, it has by its nature been a very practical enterprise. Trying to translate noble rhetoric into practical changes on the ground in the region is in the DNA of the institution.

New Zealand’s special contribution this year has been the “Aotearoa Declaration”. Its overall goal is to foster quality growth that brings tangible benefits and better health and well-being to all, including medium and small businesses, women and others with “untapped economic potential”.

Minister of Commerce Damien O'Connor.


Minister of Commerce Damien O’Connor.

New Zealand’s leadership over the past year has been widely recognized as invigorating APEC. A big victory for the Ardern government was a deal to end fossil fuel subsidies. It is written in the language of APEC, which works by consensus, and uses the language of ‘could’ and not ‘will’, but it is an important step forward in ending a costly economic distortion that has also contributed to the increase in carbon emissions in the region. .

There were also the smaller, more immediate wins. In June, Trade Minister Damien O’Connor announced that all trade ministers had agreed to remove most tariffs on vaccines and vaccine-related products, and to speed up flows through customs and airports. In a time of pandemic, these small, practical steps prove the value of the forum.

More generally, APEC occupies a unique place in the multilateral architecture of the region. It is the only forum which deals only with economic cooperation and avoids wider tensions in a world of renewed geopolitical competition.

For this reason alone, even though the quality of APEC varies from year to year, the effort is worth it.

The region is still reeling from the American turn taken by the Trump administration in the United States, whereby trade deficits – where a country’s imports are worth more than exports – were seen as somehow “losers.” The Biden administration has yet to completely reverse this worldview and some of the policies that flow from it.

APEC is likely to gain in importance as China asserts itself more about its place in the world and the Chinese Communist Party, which sits at the top of the state apparatus, gradually tightens political control over its own. people. The intellectual tide in Washington is also suspicious and highly critical of commercialism, territorial ambitions and behavior in China, under the now seemingly undefined leadership of Xi Jinping.

As Australia, India, Japan and the United States place more emphasis on quadrilateral dialogue, and following Australia’s signing of the AUKUS Pact with the United States which will provide it, at some point, nuclear submarines, geopolitical tensions in the region will only become more tense.

This is why APEC matters more than ever. It is a way to facilitate practical cooperation so that the two biggest players in the region – the United States and China – can be brought together while taking into account the needs of the region as a whole.

New Zealand’s contribution to this, by running an awkward online conference that was to represent a year of meetings and events in Auckland, has been more than commendable.

This story was produced as part of a publication in partnership with APEC 2021.

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