Policy file: APEC 2017

The free trade agenda in a sceptical world

Martin Blaszczyk

Trade and industry, International relations | Asia

16 November 2017

As is often the case, the main news out the 25th annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders’ Meeting had little to do with APEC itself. Martin Blaszczyk takes a look.

For a regional gathering seemingly more committed than ever to an agenda of free and open trade, it was hard to avoid not one but two economic elephants in the room.

First, as the Philippines’ Business Inquirer points out, the summit’s Da Nang Declaration, affirming closer trade and investment ties, had to be tempered due to US President Donald Trump’s staunch railing against “unfair” trade practices on the part of other countries against his own. ‘America First’ means bilateralism is once again enjoying top billing alongside regional integration. Unsurprisingly, Trump’s rhetoric has been contrasted with that of Chinese President Xi Jinping, and is already being called a “gift” to China’s standing in the region by early commentators.

Second, observers could also not help noticing that the most progress on trade was made on the sidelines of the main show – on the Trans-Pacific Partnership – now sans America and encompassing only 11 of APEC’s 21 members. And this despite the much-publicised no-show by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at an important leaders’ meeting.

Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull seems to have gained little domestic credit from his own key APEC achievements. These included the signing of a trade agreement with Peru, which is set to eliminate 99 per cent of tariffs affecting Australian exporters to the rapidly expanding South American economy; and further work towards a strategic partnership with Vietnam, a country that counts Australia as its seventh largest trading partner.

In other APEC news…

First, there was Trump-Putin… would they or wouldn’t they (shake hands)? They did, several times, and their meeting was so warm that it prompted Trump to state that he believed Putin when the latter said he didn’t interfere in last year’s US election: “Every time he sees me he says I didn’t do that and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Trump said. Which prompted another barrage of top-level criticism of his own interference in an ongoing FBI investigation.

Although requests for a formal meeting on the sidelines were reportedly rebuffed by the White House, the two leaders did manage to sign a joint declaration on Syria. They agreed that there is no military solution to that country’s bitter civil war, promised to defeat ISIS, and were careful to omit from the statement any areas of disagreement.

Other security issues were largely left off the agenda given the plethora of bilateral talks and the ongoing ASEAN Summit in Manila. Nonetheless, grand strategy was never far from anyone’s mind, such as Trump’s regular references to the ‘Indo-Pacific’ at a meeting restricted to Asia-Pacific economies.

As Alyssa Ayres points out in Forbes, India requested to become a member of APEC more than 20 years ago and is Asia’s third-biggest economy. She writes that its membership would greatly assist the USA’s strategic goal of making India a key stakeholder in a democratic and prosperous Asia. David Brewster has previously argued that this goal should be shared by Australia when he explained the Indo-Pacific strategic paradigm on the pages of Policy Forum.

All in all, amidst the great juggernaut of Trump’s first tour of the region, APEC’s economic trade agenda already seems like a fading pit stop on Asia’s circuit of summitry.

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