China and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Forum in a Nutshell


In a previous article, we’ve put the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) under the microscope and while it cannot be considered a 100% homogeneous entity, it is… well, homogeneous enough to make analyzing it relatively straightforward.

The same cannot be said about the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, established back in 1989 so as to nurture productive dialogue in the Asia-Pacific region.

The earliest members founded this entity back in November of 1989: Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Indonesia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and, of course, the United States of America.

What followed was a November 1991 mini-wave, with the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan joining. Mexico and Papua New Guinea were on-boarded in November of 1993, with Chile joining on the same month of 1994 and Peru, Russia as well as Vietnam finally joining back in November of 1998.

As can be seen, it tends to be difficult to even contemplate using terms such as “homogeneity” in light of how geographically dispersed the member nations are. Still, the APEC most definitely has its role in the geopolitical ecosystem, as there is tremendous value associated with nurturing a framework that facilitates anything from dialogue to the alignment of standards and regulation among member states.

However, especially when it comes to the Chinese variable, let’s just say that things were far more straightforward as far as APEC was concerned in the past than nowadays, for reasons which should be more than obvious to an observer familiar with the current intricacies associated with the trade relationship between… of course, China and the United States.

Agendas are, expectedly, all over the place.

On the one hand, we have the United States and obvious allies such as Japan and Australia who are let’s say less than thrilled about the growing influence of China on the global scene. Then there are nations (especially ASEAN members in this case) such as Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines who obviously do not want to adopt an attitude which risks alienating China due to the fact that there is too much at stake for them commercially. Next, we of course have China with its own agenda and the sensitive issues surrounding Hong Kong as well as Taiwan. Finally, other members states end up being caught in the middle.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that more and more issues such as the Port Moresby 2018 APEC event ending without a joint statement (in this case, due to China not agreeing with the “unfair trade practices” wording) end up being in status quo territory. Despite China not seeing eye to eye with several APEC members, it is at the very least abundantly clear to any analyst worth his salt that at least a strategy is in place, with the Chinese being diligent and patient (as tends to frequently be the case) with respect to seeing it through.

As far as the let’s call it US axis is concerned, that is no longer the case, at least not under president Donald Trump. Barack Obama’s proverbial pivot toward Asia at the very least made it clear that there is some kind of assumed vision in the United States. At this point in time, however, that is clearly no longer the case, with Donald Trump for example famously choosing to skip APEC and ASEAN events so as to engage in a public debate with Emmanuel Macron in Europe.

This inevitably sends the message across that the perspective of the United States when it comes to the Asia-Pacific region is chaotic at best and reckless at worst. Diplomatic observers tend to be quite troubled by this state of affairs because a lot is at stake geopolitically, with hotspots such as the South China Sea and the militarization of artificial islands by China making it clear that… well, there is a lot to talk about, something the APEC was actually created to accomplish.

Whether it succeeds in this respect remains to be seen.

Ground-level diplomatic activity tends to indicate that the APEC seems to be a textbook example of an entity which needs to perhaps be re-defined so as to remain relevant in today’s world, a geopolitical landscape which poses problems few would have thought possible in 1989. Of course, it would be exaggerated to paint a picture that is overly gloomy. On the contrary, quite a few countries including China itself have achieved a level of prosperity which would have been considered unlikely three decades ago.

But prosperity is not everything and, indeed, it is becoming abundantly clear that China’s prosperity as well as the various doors it can open poses geopolitical problems that need to be tackled in a mature and sustainable manner. The Asia-Pacific region most definitely needs a robust APEC, as geopolitical stability in the region should be considered a dominant worldwide goal rather than just an APEC-centric one. At this point, it sometimes seems that many geopolitical players fail to acknowledge the true potential as well as importance of entities that are meant to facilitate meaningful dialogue such as the APEC. One can only hope for progress in this respect, because alternative scenarios are anything but reassuring.