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Will APEC find its ‘noun’?

If anything, President Duterte was really not too keen on going to the APEC Summit in Lima, Peru. But arrangements have already been made for the president to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin and confirmed by our friend, Russian Ambassador Igor Khovaev. The fastest way to get to Peru is by making a stopover in New Zealand. There is a possibility the president will make a stopover in New York on the way back to Davao, where he will meet US president-elect Donald Trump. This however has not been confirmed as of this writing.

The trip to Peru is the second time the president will be exposed to a big regional group meeting, the first one having been the ASEAN Summit in Laos. There is a possibility for a short encounter between him and outgoing US president Barack Obama. It will hopefully be a cordial “hello, how are you and good luck” type of meeting.

According to Foreign Secretary Jun Yasay, several leaders have made requests for some face time with the president, who is expected to present his economic platform, the peace and order situation in the country and the other initiatives made by his administration during the formal APEC meeting.

After the ASEAN, the APEC is regarded as the second most important regional group for the Philippines as it gives the opportunity to expand economic linkages considering that the country’s trade with the 21 member economies stands at 80 percent or over $103 billion of our total trade.

APEC critics however say the regional grouping has become more and more “irrelevant” through the years, with the summit nothing more than a stage where these world leaders can engage in “empty chatter.” Many can still recall how APEC was jokingly described in 1993 by lawyer-academician and former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth John Evans as “four adjectives in search of a noun” – a tag that has shadowed the regional grouping over the decades, spawning such tongue-in-cheek references as “four adjectives in search of an interjection” and more recently, “four adjectives in search of a conclusion.” In fact, The Economist even wryly commented that the association was also in search of a verb – meaning no one really knows what it actually does.

APEC was established at a time when the world was also experiencing change – with China on the rise while the Soviet Union was “on the way out,” and leaders were increasingly recognizing the vast economic opportunities offered by Pacific rim nations. Australia was the driving force that led to the establishment of APEC in 1989 with 12 members (the Philippines is a founding member), and has since grown to 21 members representing some three billion people and accounting for 60 percent of the world GDP and 50 percent of global trade.

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Unfortunately, APEC’s reputation suffered over the years, with perceptions that it was nothing more than a “duplicate” of other economic forums espousing more liberal trade, open port policies, free market enterprise and the like. It has not helped either that the summits have been dismissed as wasteful and boring exercises that result in leaders agreeing to further discuss in the next meeting the (new) agreements that were forged.

Anti-APEC groups also contend that only the developed countries have benefited from APEC, with developing member-countries like the Philippines seen at the losing end since they cannot really compete against the giant economies of the other members. At best, these smaller countries are turned into “dumping grounds” of imported goods coming from the industrialized nations. In effect, a country does not lose anything if it is not a member of APEC, critics argue.

While previous APEC meetings did not generate a lot of attention, the summit in Peru has become highly anticipated due to anxiety that the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) treaty is dying (if not already dead) after US president-elect Donald Trump said he will scrap the whole thing. Reports also say that Obama is no longer keen to pursue the proposed trade deal – although leaders continue to call for its support like Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull – who failed to secure a meeting with Trump in New York where the Australian official made a stopover before flying to Peru.

Analysts say the scrapping of the TPP could prove to be advantageous to China which is a proponent of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership or RCEP, which also bats for a more liberal Asia Pacific free trade zone. The world’s second largest economy – which also been pushing for the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific which the US regarded as a TPP “rival” – now stands to play a more prominent role as far as trade in Asia Pacific is concerned.

In retrospect, the rise of Rodrigo Duterte, the election of Donald Trump and the growing popularity of far-right politicians like Norbert Hofer (who is running for president of Austria) and France’s Marine Le Pen (who promised to join forces with Putin and Trump for world peace if she becomes president) underscore that the world is indeed changing, with many people convinced that they have been left out of the economic benefits promised every time these global meetings are held.

Perhaps this time, the APEC meet in Peru will solve the issue of stagnant trade growth and provide real economic opportunities for smaller countries that have been left out all these years. For President Duterte, it was an opportunity for him to tell the world about his economic program combined with the continuing fight against criminality and international terrorism.

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