Work together for common good
Negotiation of a free-trade agreement among multiple partners with different stages of economic development and interests requires persistence and patience, as the US found out in the seven years it took to forge agreement on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) between 12 Pacific rim countries. Beijing came away from the recent Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation summit with the same message, after its rival plan for a regional pact failed to make any progress.
The 21 Apec leaders again backed a strategic study of the China-backed Free Trade Area of Asia Pacific (FTAAP), which they had done at their meeting in Beijing last year. They said the proposed China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), along with the TPP, might be a pathway to realising the FTAAP, which would be the world’s largest free-trade area. In this respect the meeting of a group of 16 Asia-Pacific countries - Asean members plus China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India - struck a more positive note, pledging to push for conclusion of the RCEP pact by next year.
Separately the 10 Asean members symbolically declared the establishment of an EU-style regional economic bloc by year’s end. This is a vision that diplomats admitted is unlikely to be realised for many years, since it has to accommodate the least developed members. Meanwhile, the true value of the Asean community, and the wider 16-nation group, remains more strategic, providing a credible, neutral political forum to meet regularly to sort out differences.
China may not have extended its recent success in winning support for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and its “One Belt, One Road” trade strategy, but President Xi Jinping seemed undeterred, with some straight talking about the need for the Asia-Pacific region to lead the global economy forward. This reflects a belief that if the global economy is to avoid a further slowdown, Apec members have to work together to boost regional growth. Xi also warned that rival trade pacts could cause “fragmentation” of the global economy.
That said, there is consensus that growth and development are paramount goals and that free trade lies at the centre of them. In that respect China has signalled a willingness to accelerate talks with Japan and South Korea, as well as continuing its push for a free-trade zone with Asean countries.
The region’s potential cannot be attained if its countries do not work together for common goals.