Amid the thick brush of international economic and political gatherings, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum has always been a sort of second-string operation — attended by heads of state, of course, but as noted for its tribal garb “family photo” of leaders as for its trade or diplomatic breakthroughs.
As one corporate lobbyist recently noted, the group has been derided as “four adjectives in search of a verb,” and there has been little to counter that notion in recent years.
But as the host of this year’s summit in Hawaii, the Obama administration is trying mightily to restore the relevance of a group that knits together the very disparate set of countries and economies that border the Pacific — from Singapore to China, from Peru to Papua New Guinea.
One reason is China. Though the APEC agenda is by definition regional, some of the core issues being pushed by the Obama administration are also high on the list of bilateral economic disputes between the United States and the world’s No. 2 economy.
That includes things such as the manufacture of “green” energy products, an area in which China has used state support and subsidies to try to become the world leader in solar panels, wind turbines and similar goods. U.S. officials hope as well that the APEC nations can agree on common ground rules for some of the methods China has been using to discourage imports and promote local development of software, technology products and other items in which its competitiveness lags.
The United States discusses those issues directly with the Chinese, through meetings such as the recently completed Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
The hope is that by raising the same points in a multilateral forum, and trying to bring Asian and Latin American nations along, China will feel a broader sort of pressure.
“If you have Singapore and Malaysia and others saying the same thing, it helps,” said Dorothy Dwoskin, senior director of global trade policy and strategy for Microsoft.
Technology companies in particular have been worried about Chinese efforts to set local regulations and standards that would favor Chinese businesses over U.S. and European giants such as Microsoft and Cisco.
It’s an ambitious goal for APEC, an organization that was founded in 1989 at Australia’s urging to promote freer trade in the Asia-Pacific region.
That has happened — the Asian region is the fastest-growing in the world, and trade among Asian nations has become a key prop of the global economic recovery.
But it is not clear how much APEC has had to do with that, as opposed to the influence of the numerous free-trade agreements negotiated throughout Asia, China’s internal shift toward economic openness, the expansion of membership in the World Trade Organization, or the end of the Cold War.
APEC has no enforcement tools or regulatory authority like the WTO, and lacks even the formal diplomatic energy that has compelled organizations such as the Group of 20 economic powers to produce at least a minimal set of “deliverables” at each summit.
What APEC has are meetings — and plenty of them.
There are 57 APEC sessions scheduled for this year, according to its current calendar. That includes a full six weeks’ worth of meetings in Washington, Montana and San Francisco among the senior officials preparing for the November leaders summit in Hawaii, and a separate summit on women and the economy set for September.
There is value in the sessions, said Michael W. Michalak, former U.S. ambassador to Vietnam and senior adviser to the U.S. APEC host committee.
In particular, the forum has tried to develop a stronger business presence, so that major firms from member countries have a way to talk to one another and to the various governments.
That effort, he said, is already proving its worth, as businesses confer over how to develop common standards in their countries and discuss the complexities of managing a more open world economy, with increasingly globalized supply-and-production chains.
That conversation, he said, is well beyond what more formal, regulatory bodies such as the WTO can deliver.
“The WTO is arguing about 10-year-old cases, and we are talking about what’s happening today,” Michalak said.