This article of mine appeared in Canada's journal Diplomatic World around the time of the APEC 2003 Summit in Bangkok.
“APEC in Thailand: Forging Partnership for the Future”
Diplomatic World, Sept-Oct 2003
In November 1993, the Leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) put forth at their very first gathering in Blake Island the vision of “a community of Asia-Pacific economies.” One year later, they declared at Bogor, Indonesia, the goals of achieving free and open trade and investment in the Asia-Pacific no later than 2010 for developed economies and 2020 for developing economies.
Those were years of optimism, when globalization was widely perceived as an unqualified blessing. Since then, thanks to changes in the international economic environment, the optimism has been tempered with a dose of realism. In light of APEC’s great diversity, it was recognized that trade and investment liberalization and facilitation (TILF) needed to be balanced with economic and technical cooperation (Ecotech, in APEC parlance), for the benefit of the developing member economies.
Along the way, APEC has also faced unanticipated challenges to regional growth and prosperity. The Asian economic crisis of 1997, international terrorism and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak reminded APEC that economic prosperity depends to a great extent on a foundation of non-economic factors.
The widening scope of APEC to include non-economic issues such as terrorism and infectious diseases do not alter the fact that APEC is first and foremost an economic grouping. Non-economic issues are addressed to the extent that they have an impact on regional trade and investment. Close coordination and collaboration with agencies and institutions directly responsible for such non-economic issues will be crucial in keeping APEC focused on its main goals while effectively addressing such challenges.
APEC must continue to focus on the things it does best. It will need to resist the temptation to get sidetracked into tackling issues that may be important but which can be more usefully addressed by other institutions and mechanisms. The failure of the WTO Ministerial Meeting in Cancun suggests how fragile and elusive the goal of multilateral free trade can be. APEC cannot for a moment take for granted that the Bogor goals will be achieved as scheduled but instead must pool its energy and ingenuity towards ensuring that the Bogor commitments are kept.
The road to Bogor has become more complicated not only because of the collapse of the Cancun talks and growing uncertainty over the Doha Round. The proliferation of bilateral free trade agreements has also added a new twist to regional efforts in support of multilateral free trade. Indeed, questions have been raised as to whether such RTAs/FTAs (regional trading arrangements/free trade agreements) have rendered APEC irrelevant.
Clearly, APEC is not a trade negotiation forum. What it can do is inject political impetus to the Doha Round, particularly when the Leaders meet in Bangkok in October. It can also help ensure that RTAs/FTAs in the region are consistent with APEC’s open regionalism and WTO rules and principles, to ensure that they are building blocks for global free trade, rather than stumbling blocks. In this regard, APEC held a policy dialogue on FTAs/RTAs during the second meeting of Senior Officials in Khon Kaen, Thailand. Chile, APEC’s host for next year, has agreed to continue the dialogue in 2004.
The uncertainties of today’s world require APEC to constantly adapt and reinvent itself to maintain its relevance into the future, while building upon the achievements of the past.
As chair of APEC 2003, Thailand is attempting to do just that. Under the theme of “A World of Differences: Partnership for the Future,” Thailand has been working with its APEC partners to bridge the various gaps in the region. Its priorities include building knowledge-based economies, advancing human security, promoting micro, small and medium enterprises, and building a new financial architecture that would be better able to withstand volatility in the global economy.
At the same time, Thailand continues to attach the greatest importance to key APEC issues such as contributing to the Doha Round of multilateral trade negotiations, strengthening Ecotech, and implementing measures to facilitate trade. To make APEC a more effective vehicle, Thailand has also been taking measures to streamline and improve the efficiency of the process itself, including the use of a “less-paper” system for Senior Officials’ Meetings and an emphasis on interactivity and spontaneity at the upcoming Leaders’ retreat sessions.
As issue convergence becomes the norm in the new international order, APEC is likely to find its plate increasingly full. Whether it succeeds in achieving the goals it set for itself will depend in large measure on how well it stays the course while managing the new challenges that will surely arise. Thailand will work actively with its partners in APEC to ensure that after this year, APEC’s relevance will no longer be in doubt.