Gareth Evans, Australia’s hyperactive former foreign minister, once quipped that Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation was four adjectives in search of a noun. Nearly thirty years after its founding, it’s still searching. Even more troublingly for its diminished band of admirers, APEC is still trying to determine its purpose. The presence of Donald Trump at the most recent APEC summit in Manila only served to highlight some of the forum’s problems.
APEC is not the first organization to fail to live up to high expectations and lofty rhetoric. The Asia-Pacific region—if it is anything other than the broadest of geographic signifiers—is full of such organizations. Indeed, one of the most distinctive features of the Asia-Pacific is just how many inter-governmental organizations compete for influence and the region’s attention.
Unfortunately, all of these groups are hamstrung by the so-called “ASEAN Way” of consensus-seeking, voluntarism, and chummy face-saving. The net effect is that none of them has anything near the impact or standing of multi-national groups like the European Union, all of its well-known problems notwithstanding.
APEC embodies the region’s institutional deficiencies and adds a few of its own. When the forum was established in 1989, the cost of getting the Southeast Asian states on board was subscribing to the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Way. Any organisation that could tell the Southeast Asian states what to do and impinge on their sacrosanct sovereignty was a non-starter as far as ASEAN was concerned. It still is.
From the outset, therefore, APEC’s ambitious free trade and economic liberalisation agenda was unlikely to be realised in a region with little history of, or commitment to, fundamentalist economic principles. APEC’s wildly diverse membership, which includes an array of political systems and huge variations in economic development status, added another layer of complexity when the organization set out to determine its collective goals and purpose.
Why exactly the region needed an organisation dedicated to achieving free trade when the World Trade Organisation already existed was another question that went largely unanswered. APEC has made precious little impact on encouraging regional trade liberalisation. Tellingly, such progress has occurred through bilateral or minilateral auspices.
APEC’s champions—and there still are some—argue that it serves a vital role as a venue for regional leaders to meet. Perhaps so, but many think that the East Asia Summit is now the preeminent venue for this kind of high level convention. In reality, APEC is tacked on as something of an afterthought. Critics jest that APEC’s only distinctive and memorable achievement is compelling leaders to dress in excruciating themed outfits.
Perhaps this analysis is too harsh. After all, US President Donald Trump made one of his most important set piece speeches during his trip to Asia at the APEC meeting. And yet, Trump’s address had the effect of highlighting just how little impact APEC has had on the thinking of regional leaders. If the long-term goal of APEC was to win the intellectual argument about the merits of free trade in the region, it has plainly failed.
Trump and some of his key economic advisors subscribe to a protectionist, neo-mercantilist, zero-sum world view. President Trump vowed not to let other countries “take advantage” of the United States any longer, according new trade agreements and modifying old ones to prioritize “America first.” Significantly, the focus of Trump's APEC speech was bilateral deal making, rather than the sort of regional agreements that APEC theoretically promotes.
In another potential blow to APEC, there was a subtle but noteworthy shift of Trumpian rhetoric when he continually talked about the “Indo-Pacific” rather than the Asia-Pacific. While Australian officials may have been thrilled at the adoption of a term they have enthusiastically promoted, it is not necessarily good news for the proponents of an Asia-Pacific orientation – or for China’s bid for regional hegemony.
At the heart of this regional reorientation is a strategic calculus that has very little to do with trade. The Indo-Pacific idea shifts the focus of policy-making attention toward the Indian Ocean and brings together the US, Japan, Australia and, potentially, India in what many Chinese observers see as a calculated attempt to contain China.
The other striking feature of the APEC summit was Xi Jinping assuming—once again—the mantle of a champion of trade liberalisation and economic interdependence. If nothing else, APEC can certainly claim to have provided a forum for showcasing just how much has changed in the international order. Whether organisations such as APEC can actually accommodate such a fundamental transformation in the leadership roles, goals, and ambitions of its two most consequential members is another question.
Perhaps no organisation can cope with such unresolved regional rivalries, and this is simply part of the new normal of international diplomacy. But if the Indo-Pacific/Asia-Pacific region could make up its collective mind about its membership and purpose, perhaps one effective regional organisation might yet be able to manage the array of economic and strategic issues that are currently jostling for attention.
One effective organisation necessarily means getting rid of the other non-performers, and there is likely to be no appetite for this on the part of incumbents. Institutions generally don’t disappear, even when their purpose is no longer apparent. If APEC could offer one real service to a region with a surfeit of such organizations, it might be to voluntarily call it a day and concentrate scarce diplomatic resources where they can be used more effectively. Don’t hold your breath.
Mark Beeson is Professor of International Politics at the University of Western Australia. Before joining UWA, he taught at Murdoch, Griffith, Queensland, York (UK) and Birmingham, where he was also head of department. He is the founding editor of Critical Studies of the Asia Pacific.