Leaders from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum held a virtual meeting on Friday to discuss ways to revive their coronavirus-battered economies with U.S. President Donald Trump participating for the first time since 2017.
The leaders adopted the Apec Putrajaya Vision 2040 a policy document that paints the partnership's ideas in broad but vague terms, while stressing the importance of playing according to the rules of the World Trade Organisaiton (WTO.)
Trump's participation came as a surprise as he challenges the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, won by Joe Biden. Last weekend, Trump skipped the Asean summit and withdrew from speaking at an Apec CEO Meeting earlier Friday.
Trump's only contribution to this year's Apec conference was an adress during Friday's Apec Economic Leaders Meeting. In remarks that went largely unnoticed, he boasted US commitment to "building on our unprecedented economic recovery from COVID-19." According to a terse statement by the White House, Trump also "highlighted the global health leadership of the United States," illustrated by the "successful development of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines."
This year's host, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, said Apec, whose members account for 60% of global GDP, has a central role in spearheading the post-pandemic economic recovery.
“We need to trade and invest our way out of the current economic downturn. We must come together and work constructively towards navigating the region along a path of robust, inclusive and sustainable economic recovery and growth," he said in his opening remarks.
Muhyiddin urged nations to stay united in combating COVID-19 and ensure that vaccines and health technologies are made affordable and accessible to all.
Apec leaders also discussed new development goals for the next 20 years, replacing what is known as the Bogor goals that were named after the Indonesian town where leaders agreed in 1994 to commit to free and open trade and investment.
Earlier Friday, the leaders of Japan and New Zealand warned countries against the temptation of retreating into trade protectionism.
Two parallel structures
Apec was created in 1989 in a time of growing interdependence of Asia-Pacific economies and the rise to prominence of regional trade blocs in other parts of the world. It followed a series of succesful post-ministerial conferences launched by ASEAN in the mid-1980s.
Currently two structures are emerging within Apec, reflecting the growing rivalry between China and Washington: the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (Rcep) and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Rcep was first launched in 2012 by ASEAN and six of its partners, including China, Australia, India Japan.
As a reaction the US started to aggressively build on another structure, the TPP, that was first initiated by Brunei, Chile, Singapore and New Zealand in 2005.
In an attempt to create a single market for the U.S. and 11 countries that border the Pacific Ocean, including Canada, Mexico, and Chile, Washington jumped in. The TPP in its new form was proposed by US President Barack Obama and signed in February 2016.
But its main goal was to maintain U.S. trade dominance in Asia, and warding of China’s growing influence by excluding Beijing TPP membership.
"Then Trump comes along and pulls the US out of the TPP," Carl Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy, told RFI.
"The last time that Trump attended Apec he sang the 'unilateral America first' song, when everybody else was singing multi-lateralism," says Thayer.
"And thus isolates himself as he doesn't join the Rcep. Therefore, the US is not a multilateral player."
Trump said the TPP was a “disaster pushed by special interests who wanted to rape our country [the US].”
Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton may have also given in to criticism that the TPP would bring vast profits to companies without the obligation that those profits translate into jobs or better salaries.
This time around, Trump cancelled a speech he was schedule to make at the Apec CEO forum on Thursday at the last minute. It was Chinese President Xi Jinping who took the center stage, dominating the conference with a keynote adress.
Also speaking by video link from Tokyo to the meeting of Apec CEOs, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said a “free and open Indo-Pacific will be the cornerstone for the prosperity of this region."
China, Japan and 13 other Asian neighbors on Sunday had signed the Rcep, during the Asean meeting.
Suga, who took office in September, said Japan will next push for a wider free trade pact among the 21 members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.
“Amidst a risk of inward-looking temptations in the face of the slump of the global economy, making rules for a free and fair global economy is critically important," he said. "While continuing to promote WTO reform, Japan will aspire for the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific.”
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who spoke to the CEOs after Suga, voiced hope that Apec leaders will agree on a growth vision that focus on free trade, digital innovation, and sustainability and inclusion.
“As we confront this generation’s biggest economic challenge, we must not repeat the mistakes of history by retreating into protectionism. Apec must continue to commit to keeping markets open and trade flowing," she said.