BANGKOK: The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ meeting started in Bangkok on Friday with a call from the host, Thailand, to join hands in pursuing sustainable growth and development amid economic and social challenges from COVID and climate change, and geopolitical tensions.
Leaders and heads of state from the 21 member economies of the Pacific Rim have come to the Thai capital for a meeting taking place on Nov. 18-19. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is also attending the summit as a special guest of Thailand.
What is APEC?
The APEC is an inter-governmental forum that aims at free trade and economic cooperation among countries around the rim of the Pacific Ocean.
It was established in 1989 in response to the growing interdependence of Asia-Pacific economies and the emergence of regional economic blocs such as the European Union and the North American Free Trade Area.
APEC’s 21 members are referred to as “economies.” Each must be an independent economic entity, rather than a sovereign state. The forum’s cooperative processes are mainly concerned with trade, and members engage with each other as economic entities.
APEC’s member economies are home to more than 2.9 billion people and make up over 60 percent of global GDP.
The organization is significant in terms of its size and composition. It gathers the top leaders of the world. The 21 include the US, China, and Russia. There is also Japan, South Korea, and most of the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The APEC members are Canada, the United States, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Thailand, Singapore, Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, South Korea, Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Russia.
This year’s summit, growing importance of Southeast Asia
The summit is held at the Queen Sirikit National Convention Center in Bangkok, where over 3,000 police officers were deployed to secure the participants.
Themed “Open, Connect, Balance,” the meeting focuses on restoring connectivity after the coronavirus pandemic and facilitating business mobility.
It is the last multilateral meeting of the year and comes right after a flurry of gatherings, including the high-profile G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and the Conference of the Parties climate meeting in Cairo, Egypt.
For the first time in years, three of the four key events are being held in Southeast Asia, reflecting the region’s increasing importance and a chance to take over from China.
“If you look at Asia as a whole, we know that China is a key economic engine. But China may have slowed down over the past few years due to COVID. Southeast Asia has always been another key engine for this economic growth within the region,” Prof. Pavida Pananond, lecturer of international business at Thammasat University in Bangkok, told Arab News.
“The three events that put Southeast Asia on display for global summits that bring in global leaders. I think that is quite significant in itself.”
The importance of the summit for Thailand, additionally, is in showcasing its regional position and the ability to host high-profile events, especially as next year’s APEC meeting is scheduled to take place in the US.
“A lot of effort has been put into the protocols and how we as a nation can host global leaders of the world,” Prof. Pananond added.
“That also makes Thailand part of the Southeast Asian countries that play a regional leading role in discussing key global issues.”
Sustainability on the agenda
Meetings began on Friday morning with Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha bringing focus to sustainable growth and development.
As he spoke to an audience that included the leaders of the world’s two biggest carbon polluters — China’s President Xi Jinping and US Vice President Kamala Harris.
“We can no longer live the old way. We must change our perspective and change the way of living and doing business,” Chan-o-cha said.
“We are still under the threat of climate change, which will not only impact the Asia-Pacific region, but also the livelihoods of all humankind. We, therefore, must join hand in hand to alleviate the impacts, and to protect our world.”
The Thai PM also presented to APEC leaders the “Bangkok Goals” which the host country wants to be the signature deliverable of this year's meeting and a framework to advance APEC’s sustainability.
The goals comprise supporting climate change efforts, progressing sustainable trade and investment, advancing environmental conservation, and improving resource efficiency towards zero waste.
The goals are in line with Thailand’s own Bio-Circular-Green (BCG) Economy Model — a recovery strategy and a blueprint for long-term development.
“This is an economic growth model that is based on sustainability,” Prof. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Bangkok-based Institute of Security and International Studies, told Arab News.
“(Thailand is) trying to promote kind of an open regionalism based on resilience, sustainability and inclusivity, inclusiveness, not to leave, not to have too much inequality.”
The APEC summit is also an opportunity for leaders to meet and discuss their bilateral engagements.
China’s president held on Thursday a rare meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, the first leadership-level meeting between the two countries in nearly three years. Kishida told reporters after the meeting that he had conveyed concerns amid growing tensions in Asia over China’s maritime ambitions.
The Saudi crown prince held a series of meetings on Friday, including with Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, ahead of talks with the Thai prime minister and leadership, a key event on his visit’s agenda.
South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo is expected to hold meetings with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Peruvian Vice President Dina Boluarte, and is also likely to seek international support for South Korea’s bid to host the 2030 World Expo.
Many other such meetings are going to take place as the US vice president, Australian and Singaporean prime ministers, and others are also attending.
“Having them in the same place at the same time in a summit meeting allows opportunities to strike business deals, to promote economic cooperations, address common interests and common challenges in the world economy,” Prof. Pongsudhirak said, but noted that the group should focus more on the issues it was created for.
“We should get APEC to do what it was set out to do, which is to promote trade, investment, especially now in a new era of digital trade.”
Making the forum more effective would require the involvement of the private sector.
“We can make a call for the private sector to take charge, because if you leave it to the governments, you can see a lot of contentious issues,” Prof. Pongsudhirak said.
“They don’t see eye to eye. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, the South China Sea, the Myanmar crisis …. So, to get back on trade and investment in the digital era, you really need some other drivers.”