Russia's far east should be on Apec's agenda

Donald Gasper explains why this Apec summit should rise above the grouping's limitations for mutual benefit, as Russia's far east beckons

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 September, 2012, 2:46am

The Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation grouping was once described by former Australian premier Paul Keating as "a talk shop of debatable output". With the latest Apec summit opening in the Russian city of Vladivostok this month, we will soon be able to judge whether the gathering is more than just a photo opportunity for leaders to pose in gaudy outfits.

Apec was set up to promote economic growth in the region. In its 1994 Bogor Declaration, its leaders stated as their target free and open trade and investment by 2010 for industrialised economies and by 2020 for developing ones. They pledged to promote the free flow of goods, services and capital among Apec economies.

It has failed to achieve these goals. One problem is that commitments made at its meetings are not legally binding. It may also be that, with 21 members who span the Pacific, from Russia to Chile, the body is too disparate for it to function coherently.

On the other hand, Apec's broad membership could be an asset. After all, it is the only regional body specialising in economic and trade issues that brings together both the United States and China. In addition, the presence of other economies which have a lot to lose if the relationship between these major powers deteriorates could help smooth differences between them.

One of these economies is Hong Kong, which is a member of Apec in its own right. Given its experience as a free port and a location for thousands of multinational firms, the city could play a useful role in forging a consensus on the kind of policies needed for Asia to kick-start a world recovery.

Arguably, the sorry state of much of the global economy could provide the spur for action and give Apec a new lease of life.

The Russia factor also makes the present summit historic: this is the first to be held on Russian soil and is the culmination of the country's year as chairman. It could well mark a significant turning point in Russia's relations with Asia.

Leading Russian intellectuals are publicly calling for changes in their country's foreign and internal orientation that would favour closer co-operation with a rising Asia. There are signs that a strategic shift is under way, with the creation of the Federal Ministry for the Development of the Far East, impressive new infrastructure projects and the earmarking of funds to attract Asian investment to Siberia.

Such a shift is long overdue. Currently, only 12per cent of Russia's foreign trade is with China and little more than 20per cent is accounted for by eastbound trade to other Apec members (including the US).

Russia's Asian neighbours, too, have largely been blind to the immense opportunities for investing in the development of the Russian far east. Nor is it just a question of tapping Siberia's huge hydrocarbon and mineral reserves. The possibilities of improved logistic links to Europe via Russia are of great interest, not least for Japan and South Korea.

With an improvement of regional supply chains, one of the key recommendations being discussed at the summit, stronger links between Russia and its Asian neighbours make sense. So there is much to discuss. If Apec is indeed a talking shop, its leaders should talk shop.

Donald Gasper is a Hong Kong-based journalist