APEC Santiago - all is not lost

 A few years ago, Peru hosted the APEC leaders meeting in Lima. It was the year of the Brexit referendum and Trump’s unexpected election. In the big concrete conference centre in the heart of Lima, I found a number of APEC leaders reviewing the anti-globalisation and populist mood of that year, and pondering why the political mood was changing. Didn’t people recognise that APEC-style reform had helped bring so many out of poverty? Did this mark a mood throughout the region? Was APEC-trade reform no longer delivering dividends for most people? Or was there something inadequate in the way we were communicating the benefits? 

There was no agreement on these questions. In fact, in the years since then it has become increasingly difficult to get across-the-table agreement on several APEC questions. And with slowing economic growth, dissension and sometimes protest have infected several APEC economies.

This time last year I attended the APEC leaders’ summit in Port Moresby. After a difficult year a new mood of confrontation infected the meeting. There was anger and shouting; for the first time, leaders (and in particular the US and China) could not reach agreement on the communiqué. 

This year, Chile is hosting APEC. We did not envisage difficulties. A growing economy looking for improved economic connectivity in the Asia-Pacific, with a history of successfully hosting major international events. However, the past few weeks have seen violent street protests in Santiago and other Chilean cities, resulting in nearly two dozen deaths. Unable to guarantee security for the meetings planned during November, President Pinera has announced the cancellation of APEC Leaders Week, the first time ever.  

chile edited

Photo: Carlos Figueroa, Wikimedia Chile

In New Zealand the media headlines have read ‘APEC is cancelled’. Not quite; several hundred meetings have already been held in Chile, involving 50 technical working groups, the coordinating officials, and several ministerial meetings. However, during the next fortnight 10,000 visitors were due to arrive in Santiago to hold meetings that would sign off on the year’s work, to hold one of the biggest business conferences in the world, and to convene other conventions of academics, small-business people and students. And most importantly, for the 21 economic leaders of the region, it was a chance to get together to discuss the huge challenges in the region today and to sign off on a key report on the future of APEC part-led by New Zealand.  

Does a cancelled leaders’ meeting really matter? For some it brought a sense of relief: one fewer long-distance trip, one fewer week of endless meetings. The APEC body will no doubt find a way to complete the year’s work; today much of the discussions can be done digitally. And in any case the Santiago Summit would most likely have been captured by news of a US-China trade deal.

But there are bigger costs. This cancellation will cost Chile millions of dollars and a loss of reputation. It also raises the question of whether these mega-international meetings are worth the cost, the political negotiations, the security risks, and the air transport carbon costs involved. It is the turn of Malaysia to pick up the pieces from Chile’s year, and at this stage it is unclear what their commitment will be. 

At the end of next year, New Zealand will assume the hosting responsibilities. It will be the biggest international event New Zealand has ever hosted, with 20,000 visitors and hundreds of technical meetings through the year, before the leaders arrive for their summit in Auckland. New Zealand will determine the themes for the year (though this may be complicated by a New Zealand election late next year). In addition, we will be setting APEC onto its new post-2020 pathway. And all this will be complicated by having deal with the likely loss of the Auckland International Convention Centre for some of the key meetings. 

But the toughest challenges will be international ones: dealing with slowing economic conditions, the deteriorating US-China trading relations, accommodating a new US Administration, and restoring credibility to trade liberalisation policies. Can we show that big international meetings of this type are still useful to help a dynamic economic region to coordinate its trade rules, harmonise its digital platforms, promote its women entrepreneurs, carry out its economic reforms, achieve best-practice customs procedures, and all the other hundreds of initiatives that it is promoting? If the answer is yes, then it makes it worthwhile for countries to host and for leaders to attend in the future.

Views expressed in this article are personal to the author 

 - Asia Media Centre