SINGAPORE: Comprising 21 countries and regions, it is one of the foremost economic groupings in the world. Together, the member economies of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum account for about half of global trade.
Into its 20th year, the forum continues to be one of the few meetings that gather leaders of Asia and the United States every year.
APEC leaders have set the goal of realizing free trade in its region by 2010 for developed members and 2020 for developing ones, while officials maintain that the grouping's nonbinding arrangements have accelerated economic integration by moving beyond broad trade liberalization to specifically reducing business costs and barriers through regulatory reforms.
In one of its latest reports, the APEC secretariat even compared the impact of its membership on trade to that of a free trade agreement -- even as suggestions of exploring a free trade area in the Asia-Pacific have been tossed around.
APEC members are reportedly three times more likely to export to others of the group than to a nonmember, and two times more likely to import from another member than from a nonmember.
The secretariat's report also pointed to a fivefold rise in trade within APEC in its two decades.
"This provides analytical evidence that the APEC achieves results," Philip Gaetjens, director of the APEC Policy Support Unit, the team responsible for the report, was quoted as saying.
"It shows that regional integration is strong and has prospered under a voluntary and nonbinding approach to enhancing trade."
But amid all these stellar credentials and achievements, skeptics of APEC still see it as one of many international institutions that fail to have any clout beyond mere talk. Other than its reliance on consensus, they also point to APEC coming up short during the Asian financial crisis and its relative unimportance in light of more pressing issues of the day such as terrorism and climate change in recent years.
Still, at least one aspect of this year's forum has already made itself very clear - the rising role of China in the grouping and beyond.
As seminal events move into full gear in this year's APEC host country of Singapore this week, all eyes are on the crucial messages that China is expected to send out to the global community amid economic recovery and direction.
To that effect, President Hu Jintao's speech at APEC's CEO Summit this Friday has been highlighted as a major event of the forum this year.
From high-level symposium speakers discussing a new world order with China at the forefront to photojournalists battling for a slot to snap Hu's arrival in the host country, the world's third-largest economy and its fastest-growing one in the past three decades is on the lips and minds of many at APEC's meeting halls here in Singapore.
Hu's visit to Singapore itself, which also includes a state visit to the island republic, caps off a remarkable year of bilateral relations, even as Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has called China's role in the success of the APEC forum "crucial".
In that respect, a lot is on the table. These include China's ability to sustain its red-hot growth to help drive demand in other member economies; the country's relations - trade and otherwise - with the US, a APEC heavyweight; as well as its ties and the role it seeks in dealing with other APEC members and the rest of the world.
(China Daily 11/11/2009 page2)