BEIJING: Leaders of more than half the world’s economy gather in Beijing next week for the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, with China and the US pushing rival trade agreements as a week-long series of international summits gets under way.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, hosting his biggest international gathering since assuming office nearly two years ago, welcomes representatives including US President Barack Obama, his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The APEC, which starts with ministerial meetings on Friday before the main summit on Monday and Tuesday, accounts for more than 50 percent of global gross domestic product, 44 percent of world trade, and 40 percent of the Earth’s population.
In the 25 years since it was set up it has long pushed free trade among its members—with mixed success in the face of bilateral deals, protectionist tendencies, and the vagaries of global World Trade Organization negotiations —and three competing concepts will vie for dominance in Beijing.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), pushed by Washington and seen as part of its much-touted “pivot” to Asia after years leading wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, is being discussed by 12 APEC nations including the US, Japan and Australia, but market access disagreements between Washington and Tokyo are a particular hurdle.
The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) champions the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which would bring together Asean and six countries with which it has Free Trade Agreements, including China, Japan and India.
And a broader Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP), raised in 2006 by APEC leaders and currently seen as a way to eventually bridge the other two, has been embraced by China.
“We don’t want to see [the]TPP rich man’s club going off in that direction and RCEP going off in this direction,” Alan Bollard, APEC executive director and former head of New Zealand’s central bank, told Agence France-Presse. “We want to see them converging,” he added.
Wang Shouwen, an assistant minister of commerce, told reporters on Tuesday that China “hopes concrete measures will be taken to make progress towards the realisation of the FTAAP” at APEC, specifically seeking an “early date” for a timetable to implement a roadmap for the deal.
“There is no such issue as blocking or clash,” he insisted.
But Chinese analysts are suspicious that TPP-driving Washington wants to thwart FTAAP because of Beijing’s interest in it.
“It is natural that the US would show less enthusiasm in pushing forward FTAAP whose establishment will inevitably offset the impact of Trans-Pacific Partnership,” Bai Ming, of the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation, told China’s Global Times newspaper on Tuesday.
Consensus-based APEC, whose members are as diverse as the United States and Papua New Guinea, was once the main venue for pan-Pacific summits.
But it will be followed immediately by the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Myanmar, and then the Group of 20 (G20) summit in Brisbane, Australia.
Key countries such as the United States, China, Japan, Australia and Indonesia belong to all three groups, but the rise of the EAS and the upgrading of the G20 to a summit-level event in 2008 amid the strains of the global financial crisis have taken some of the luster off APEC.
“If there are no clear accomplishments for an APEC meeting as opposed to other meetings, why are we having two Asian meetings, three international meetings all at the same time?” said Charles Morrison, president of the East-West Center in Hawaii.
“APEC is more than about trade,” he said, adding that with growth slowing it was important for the organization to have a “broad agenda.”