Still searching for the Apec identity

Thom Woodroofe says without a sharper identity and a more focused agenda, Apec risks becoming one more inconsequential Asian grouping

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 September, 2012, 2:20am

Former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans famously quipped that Apec was "four adjectives in search of a noun". Almost two decades on, not much seems to have changed, with the gathering still lacking a coherent identity within the alphabet soup of Asian institutionalism.

While last weekend's gathering in Vladivostok did agree to some important reductions of green tariffs, the continuing regional dispute over the South China Sea barely rated a mention outside press conferences and meetings on the sidelines.

And with Russian President Vladimir Putin pumping in more than US$21 billion to showcase his country's East Asian portal city, the legacy of this year's Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum summit will be little more than its location.

In recent years, the risk of a wholesale collapse of Apec has only intensified. The elevation of the G20 to heads-of-government level in 2008, which includes nine Apec members, removed what the East West Centre's Charles Morrison has described as the "international dating service" imperative of Apec for many regional leaders outside the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to get together.

This was followed in 2010 by the enlargement of the East Asia Summit to include both the US and Russia, immediately placing newfound demands on the White House to commit to two annual visits to the region.

This year, after Russia abruptly shifted the Apec gathering forward by three months - apparently to avoid the Vladivostok winter - US President Barack Obama was forced to announce he could not attend, given its proximity to the US presidential election.

Ultimately, the absence of any major player from a multilateral gathering risks undermining its stability and, in Apec's case, the possibility of a downgrade to an annual ministerial meeting now looks like a real danger.

In many ways, this is representative of a broader leadership vacuum in Asia's regional institutionalism. As this year's Asean chair, Cambodia has shown little diplomatic ingenuity or capacity to forge progress on contentious issues such as the South China Sea. It is unlikely this trend will be reversed when the baton is passed to Brunei next year.

Instead, the key to shoring up Apec looks likely to rest with Jakarta as the host of the 2013 gathering. The Indonesian foreign minister already seems keenly aware of this risk, characterising his country's Apec host year as one about "leadership not leaders".

Indonesia also has a key role to play in strengthening Asean, a fact clearly not lost on US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose stopover at the regional body's headquarters in Jakarta last week was crafted to convey just that message.

This could involve replacing the former Thai foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan from his role in charge of the organisation with a more high-profile individual like the former Singaporean prime minister Goh Chok Tong or the former Thai leader Anand Panyarachun.

Ultimately, a collapse of Apec is in nobody's interests. But, to ensure its survival, it must return to a focused agenda.

Thom Woodroofe is an associate fellow of The Asia Society. Follow on Twitter: @thomwoodroofe