APEC’s Senior Officials Meeting is a good step. But APEC needs a Summit.
On May 27, 2020, Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) held a meeting on a Senior Officials level to discuss about the grouping’s response to COVID-19.
This meeting is a follow up of APEC’s Ministers Responsible for Trade (MRT) Statement on COVID-19 that was issued on May 5, 2020.
Previously, APEC issued another statement, which was the APEC Health Working Group Statement on COVID-19. This statement was issued back in March 23, 2020.
However, unlike another big economies grouping like G20, APEC has been unable to bring together its head of governments to have an extraordinary virtual summit.
Despite the fact that almost half of G20 members are also members of APEC, a unified action taken by APEC would signal a good intention of cooperation in the Asia Pacific, that is still unfounded right now.
For now, the appetite for APEC — in any country — seems to be at the new low. The failure to reach an agreement in 2018 APEC Summit Papua New Guinea — where the United States was only represented by its Vice President — signifies a great question as to whether its members could overcome US-China rivalry.
The following year, the 2019 APEC Summit that was supposedly held in Chile was canceled due to domestic unrest in the country — along with the UN Climate Conference. The difference is, the UN Climate Conference was quickly relocated to Europe, while APEC does not even bother to replace the summit with a virtual summit.
This is a shame given that APEC used to be a place, along with G20, for world’s largest economies, like the United States and China to talk and listen to each other, to overcome differences, and to forge cooperation.
Some might remember that even one of the APEC summits was expected to be the place where the United States would sign the first phase of agreement to tackle the trade war with China. Now it all was only an imagination.
APEC serves as a very unique platform for Asia Pacific countries to cooperate. There are at least three points where APEC is a uniquely distinct platform of cooperation in the region that is hard to replace.
First, APEC welcomes Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) as a member. This is unfounded in any other multilateral groupings. APEC is a truly unique platform where Taiwan can share best practices and can contribute to its neighbours in the Asia Pacific.
Second, APEC has the APEC Business Travel Card (ABTC), which allows business officials from one member economy to travel with less restrictions to another member economy. Even this piece in South China Morning Post argues that ABTC could help the Asia Pacific in starting a travel bubble in a post-COVID world.
Third, unlike G20, APEC has a permanent secretariat, just like ASEAN. This allows APEC to have a continuous cooperation without meaningful disruptions every year.
Appetite for Cooperation and the Great Power Rivalry
Unfortunately though, the appetite for cooperation in APEC seems to be at the new low. The great power rivalry has greatly damaged this appetite for cooperation in APEC.
Not far long ago, the idea to invite India to be part of APEC was in the air. On the other hand, during the 2017 APEC Summit in Vietnam, US President Donald Trump called for an Indo-Pacific cooperation — which would definitely include India in it. Therefore, an inclusion of India in APEC is a paramount interest of the United States. However, that is not the reality. The United States is losing appetite to cooperate through APEC, and does not even bother to discuss about India’s inclusion in APEC.
On the other hand, the United States is strengthening its Indo-Pacific cooperation through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the Quad, which couples itself with Japan, Australia, and India. Interestingly, as the US hosts this year’s G7 summit, Trump decides to invite India, South Korea, and Australia (because Japan is already in the G7). But the discussion on India’s inclusion in APEC seems to be abandoned altogether.
APEC used to be a premier platform for countries in the Asia Pacific to tackle regional economic problems — and APEC is supposed to be highly relevant in times of crisis like this. But this is unfounded today.
If this trend is to continue, there is a little reason to be optimistic in APEC. And to revive that optimism, an APEC virtual summit on COVID-19 should be held, without delay.