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Rebuilding APEC consensus

By Wang Yuzhu | China Daily | Updated: 2013-09-28 07:08

Reviving the regional forum's role as a platform for economic integration is mandatory to deepen international cooperation

A prominent issue of discussion at the Oct 1-8 APEC economic leaders' week and related meetings in Bali, Indonesia, is likely to be the development prospect of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in a fast changing region.

With global economic growth still floundering and the Chinese economy slowing down, countries in the Asia-Pacific region are looking toward APEC to play its role as the engine of regional and global economic growth. China, too, expects the APEC meetings in Bali to come up with some concrete and positive suggestions, not least because it will host the APEC informal economic leaders' week next year.

The Bali meetings are also important for China because it, in some ways, would reveal the result of the United States' aggressive promotion of Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations among APEC member economies since it began its strategic rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific.

According to Indonesian officials, the Bali meetings, under the theme of "Resilient Asia-Pacific, Engine of Global Growth", will mainly focus on achieving the Bogor Goals, especially sustainable growth with equity and better connectivity. The Bali agenda shows the importance APEC attaches to the Bogor Goals of trade and investment liberalization and facilitation, which were agreed to by APEC leaders in Bogor, Indonesia, in 1994. The recommitment to the Bogor Goals indicates Indonesia hopes to pull APEC cooperation back on the track to build consensus among the member economies.

With APEC membership expanding over the past 20 years, the gap in the economic development levels among its members has been widening. Besides, economic fluctuations caused by the global financial crisis, climate change, environmental damage and other factors have been thwarting regional sustainable development. As a result, economic growth has become a major concern in recent years.

The promotion of connectivity is a new issue. Since the Association of Southeast Asian Nations adopted the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity in 2010, connectivity has become a popular factor in regional cooperation. By introducing regional connectivity to APEC, Indonesia and other developing countries are trying to achieve seamless regional economic integration in the Asia-Pacific region.

The US' Asia-Pacific strategy has become an important factor affecting the development of APEC. Of late, Washington's attempts to promote TPP negotiations within the framework of APEC has, to a large extent, affected the development direction of APEC.

Although the US claims the ultimate goal of the TPP is to build a free trade area within the framework of APEC, many APEC member economies are excluded from TPP negotiations because they have not yet reached the high standards set by the US. The result: APEC has been divided into TPP and non-TPP groups.

Washington's changed stance on APEC is responsible for creating the sorry state of affairs we see in the region today. When APEC was formed, the US' main objective was to promote economic integration. But because of China's rapid economic rise, the US began turning to bilateral and sub-regional arrangements. Now, by promoting cooperation within a select group of APEC members, the US is aiming to maintain its dominance in the Asia-Pacific region.

This means the US' leading role in APEC has significantly weakened, and countries hosting APEC meetings have to guide the forum according to the best of their capabilities, which creates uncertainties for its development.

APEC countries have to reach a consensus based on cooperation and development. Indonesia, as this year's APEC host, has expressed hope that China would continue to promote some of the issues it has put forward. China's support is important to continue the efforts to strengthen APEC. But more importantly, only when APEC members redefine and reach a consensus on their cooperation direction can the APEC cooperation agenda yield continuous positive results.

Otherwise, APEC members may end up being locked in competitions, with each trying to direct regional development to serve its own interests, which would lead to chaos.

There is urgent need to clarify the major functions of APEC as a platform for regional economic integration. While setting the cooperation agenda, APEC members should remember their common economic interests.

Needless to say, the economic growth issue deserves continued attention. Since the world economy is still mired in uncertainty, whether the Asia-Pacific region can contribute more to global economic growth depends on the joint efforts of the region's economies. Therefore, APEC should remain committed to deepening regional cooperation.

To this end, APEC should try to coordinate a variety of competitive regional arrangements, some of which already exist in the region. An important task for APEC is to coordinate the relationship between the US-led TPP and ASEAN's Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. And given the development gap among APEC members, which can be detrimental to deeper regional cooperation, Indonesia's emphasis on promoting regional connectivity deserves special attention.

In the final analysis, only by reviving APEC's role as a regional economic integration platform can a consensus be reached and cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region deepened.

The author is director of the Research Center for APEC and East Asian Cooperation at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

(China Daily 09/28/2013 page5)

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