The APEC Summit and the Global Reflection of Pacific Issues

The excitement of in-person diplomacy ahead of the G20 summit in Rome (30-31 October) may put geopolitical tensions, epitomised by the US–China clash, on hold. However, a few days later (8 November), things may be different at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.

In order to understand the reasons for this guess, let us make an overview of this intergovernmental forum that, though many miles from rond-point Schuman, is relevant for the Old Continent.

The majority of countries bordering the Pacific Ocean meet regularly at the APEC since 1989, with the aim to ease trade in the region. APEC countries, of which there are currently 21, represent nearly 62% of world GDP thanks to the participation of heavy-weights like the United States, China, Japan, and Canada, which together represent 80% of APEC’s economy.

The efficacy of APEC is attested to by the decisions made during the COVID-19 emergency (e.g., members pledged to facilitate trade of vaccines and other essential medical devices), but also by the progress achieved towards reaching broader agreements.

In November 2020, 15 countries signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), with China as the reference country. The RCEP was born in response to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the agreement endorsed by President Barack Obama to stem Beijing’s economic growth and political influence. The TPP was then abandoned by Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, but relaunched by Japan and enriched with the must-have adjectives “Comprehensive” and “Progressive”, to become CPTPP in March 2018.

The two agreements – RCEP and CPTPP – share the objective of liberalising trade in the region; six APEC members are signatories to both (see Table 1). The RCEP is larger than the CPTPP (Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar participate in the agreement alongside 11 APEC countries) and is the first regional agreement that includes China, Japan, and South Korea. Compared to the RCEP, the CPTTP is more ambitious on tariffs and investments, on State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs), especially with regard to public subsidies, on workers’ rights, on privacy, and on data transfer between member countries.

The UK, China, and Taiwan all recently applied to join the CPTPP. Existing members of the agreement decided to open negotiations with the UK, for whom ‘Pacific’ is the manifestation of a certain post-Brexit horror vacui regarding trade agreements. Taiwan applied on 22 September, six days after China did, probably hoping to join the partnership before Beijing, thus avoiding its likely veto as a member.

China’s candidacy to the CPTPP raised some eyebrows as the country remains far from the agreement’s objectives, such as in the field of SOEs and state interventionism. It is unlikely that CPTPP members will welcome China, as the nation was welcomed 20 years ago when it joined the World Trade Organization: the expected transition to a market economy has proven to have been wishful thinking.

China being granted membership is rendered even more unlikely considering the position of some CPTPP members, especially Australia. The already tense relations between those countries have certainly not improved after the AUKUS agreement (where collaboration with the UK and US will equip Australia with nuclear-powered submarines), after President Xi Jinping’s commitment to a reunification with Taiwan, and after the test of a Chinese nuclear-capable hypersonic missile. The US, even if it is not a member of the CPTTP, can exert its anti-China influence in the Pacific area. However, American influence in the Pacific as it existed in 2008, when the TPP was launched, is now fading as Pacific countries have intensified economic relations with China, conversely reducing links with the United States.

Table 1: APEC members and their participation in CPTPP and RCEP

How might the APEC summit turn sour?

The rich agenda of the forthcoming APEC summit, to be discussed across eleven time zones, may cool American and Chinese hearts. In addition to issues directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic, it will actually be necessary to discuss how to strengthen value chains and how to make trade more sustainable.

However, unlike the G20 in Rome, the APEC summit will see the empathy of in-person meetings replaced by physical distancing: being in one’s stronghold, connected through high-quality video, may increase one’s ease to lift the drawbridge in case of a clash. Moreover, since physical geography cannot be altered, European countries won’t participate to the APEC summit.

The EU has found itself equidistant between China and the US and could have stood in the way of a direct confrontation. The EU and China reciprocated bilateral sanctions after a European Parliament resolution condemning China’s policy in Xinjiang and in Hong Kong, thus freezing the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment. As far as transatlantic relations are concerned, President Joe Biden has barely improved the legacy of his outspoken predecessor, as demonstrated by the nominal progress on tariffs on EU steel and aluminium and the AUKUS agreement. It is an odd coincidence that, after months of patience, the Commission and the High Representative publish the new strategy for the Indo-Pacific the day after the announcement of the AUKUS agreement, which does not include any EU nation.