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Coherent Vision: How the Asia Pacific Can Drive Sustainable and Inclusive Growth

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Referred to in the past as “four adjectives in search of a noun”, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum over nearly three decades has focused on its goal of free and open trade and investment across the region by 2020. This fateful year, which turned out to be marked by the worst global economic crisis for generations, is nearly over, with APEC’s 21 member economies searching for a post-2020 vision. Eduardo Pedrosa, secretary general of the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council, and economist Christopher Findlay, argue that the pandemic and its devastating aftermath have given the grouping that purpose: to lay out a long-term strategic framework that sets a positive direction for reform and growth for regional governments and gives businesses the confidence to plan for the future.

Coherent Vision: How the Asia Pacific Can Drive Sustainable and Inclusive Growth

Post-pandemic challenge: Can APEC economies get back to basics and set a long-term framework for reform and growth that gives businesses confidence? (Credit: MyAPEC2020)

With the Covid-19 pandemic, the Asia Pacific is undergoing an unprecedented health, human, and economic crisis. Its many dimensions make this an exceptional challenge for policymakers and one that can only be effectively overcome through international cooperation. While the Asia Pacific was initially at the center of the shock, through its long-established norms and processes it can also locate itself at the heart of the solutions. Before the crisis struck, Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum officials were working on a post-2020 vision for the region, but now attention is focused on dealing with the immediate crisis. The argument we make here is that the Bogor Goals of free and open trade and investment helped drive reform efforts for the past 25 years, and now a similar call to action, indeed a leap of faith, is needed to restore confidence and drive growth once the pandemic is over.

Before the Bogor Goals were adopted in 1994, regional economies were already reforming and liberalizing. It is not as if regional leaders gathered in Indonesia and all of sudden decided to open their markets. Indeed, APEC’s “vision” was articulated at its first leaders’ meeting on Blake Island, near Seattle, the previous year. Before that, mostly on their own accord or in the context of General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) negotiations or of regional agreements such as the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA), governments had been lowering tariffs. That was the path of development they had chosen. Yet the adoption of the Bogor Goals was still important, because it signaled a political commitment to reform and openness at the highest level among the world’s fastest growing markets.

Commitment of that kind will once again send a signal, not only to the Asia Pacific but to the world as well, that this region of close to three billion people will remain on course to achieve its stunning potential.

The Asia Pacific is expected to shrink by 4.7 percent this year before recovering to 5.4 percent growth in 2021, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Data from the International Labor Organization (ILO) show that global working hours declined in the first quarter of 2020 by an equivalent of about 130 million full-time jobs.

Beyond unemployment, the impact of the crisis on poverty is likely to be disastrous. The World Bank estimates that the number of people living in extreme poverty – less than US$1.90 a day – will increase from 595 million to as much as 712 million people. In the worst-case scenario, all poverty reduction over the past five years will be wiped out.

Pessimism prevails 

To understand views on the economic impact of the crisis, areas for cooperation, strategies for exiting from quarantine and the likely long-term impact on business and government behavior, the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council (PECC) undertook a survey of more than 700 regional policy experts and stakeholders from May 19 to June 12.

While forecasts for economic growth for the region are for a rebound in 2021, the respondents to the PECC’s survey are far more pessimistic, expecting on balance weaker growth than 2019 for their economies for the next three to five years. In 2019, the Asia Pacific grew by about 3.4 percent, and using survey responses to develop a growth index, the region is not expected to get back to that level for the next five years.

These sentiments and expectations have important consequences – they depress levels of spending by businesses and households. Ultimately, confidence will only be restored when the pandemic is over and a vaccine is discovered. There also remains a great deal of uncertainty over the size of the shock, its duration, implications for stabilization policies. and an eventual recovery. This uncertainty makes it extraordinarily difficult to assess the situation and would certainly add to constraints on their spending. It is also difficult to formulate policies or strategies for recovery.

Behind the pessimism

The views of our policy community on the risks to growth help us understand the origins of this pessimism. In the context of the Covid-19 crisis, it is hardly surprising that pandemics were selected as the top risk to growth, followed by disappearing jobs. The other top risks were a slowdown in world trade growth, increased protectionism and trade wars, and lack of political leadership. The Covid-19 crisis has accelerated a number of existing trends – if one of those trends was the rapid transformation of economies due to economic and technological change then it is little surprise that disappearing jobs has risen as a concern. More needs to be done to help economies adjust to this process.

Protectionism has been rising as a risk to growth in our surveys each year over the past decade. The percentage of respondents selecting protectionism as a top-five risk to growth for their economy has been steadily growing, from 25 percent in 2011 to 64 percent in last year’s survey. Protectionism has a real impact on growth, the IMF estimates that the impact of trade tensions on global gross domestic product in 2019 was about 0.8 percent. Even if the health crisis is resolved, and unless trade tensions are also resolved, growth is likely to continue to be much slower than it otherwise could be. Correcting this situation will take political leadership, which respondents to PECC’s survey also perceive to be lacking.

At the height of the Covid-19 crisis, governments were implementing trade restricting measures or export bans to deal with the surge in demand for medical equipment. At the same time, however, they were also liberalizing trade to facilitate the import of the same goods and reduce tariffs on them. The best outcomes are when governments not only refrain from trade restrictions but also encourage free trade. APEC trade ministers have agreed to a Declaration on Facilitating the Movement of Essential Goods” which is a sign of progress. This is a positive move and demonstrates the potential that APEC has for forging consensus among a diverse group of economies through dialogue and non-binding commitments.

Long-term impact on business and government 

Another trend intensified by Covid-19 is the development of the digital economy. For those privileged white-collar workers who still have jobs, the inescapable reality while under lockdown has been the videoconference. Pre-pandemic, downloads of video-conferencing apps averaged about 5 million a week. But by the time governments were implementing social-distancing protocols such as school and workplace closures, these had jumped to close to 56 million downloads weekly.

The digital economy has not just been a lifeline for businesses during the great lockdown. It has allowed millions of schoolchildren and university students to continue with their education. Going digital has been a lifeline in medicine. With people unable or frightened to visit doctors, the risk of other sicknesses going untreated has risen. As a result, telemedicine providers have reported a massive increase in demand for their services. In countries where the infrastructure – both soft and hard – does not exist or is limited, digital divides are growing. Children are missing out on education, people cannot see doctors, and businesses that are not digitally enabled are struggling or even closing.

This is an enormous agenda for governments to address. This situation is made even more difficult by the fractures in the global digital economy, with various security concerns as well as geopolitical forces putting up barriers to integration across regions. While within economies the use of the digital economy is intensifying, its applicability to international business is being impeded.

APEC has an Internet and Digital Economy Roadmap and, in this environment, it needs to be implemented more rapidly. A series of member-led projects would be invaluable. In particular, in APEC’s dialogue mechanism, members can share how they have addressed the gaps underscored by Covid-19 such as lack of high broadband access, inadequate online payment systems, the lack of digital ID systems, and restrictive services policies, among others.

Virtual APEC trade ministers' meeting chaired by Malaysia, July 25 (Credit: APEC)

Challenges for APEC

While we stress the opportunities for APEC, member economies have significant challenges. Leaders did not meet in Chile last year due to protests across the country, and they could not agree to a statement in Papua New Guinea the year before that. Just what will come out of a virtual economic leaders’ meeting to be hosted by Malaysia at the end of November is not clear.

Remembering that APEC’s original goals and vision were built on domestic reforms already in motion is not a trip down memory lane or nostalgia for a different time. Even from the outset of APEC there were significant differences among regional economies and challenges for the multilateral system.

In a January 1989 speech to the Korean business community in Seoul, then-prime minister of Australia Bob Hawke outlined the concept for what would eventually become APEC. In that speech he provided his rationale for an Asia-Pacific inter-governmental organization, stating that “serious cracks are appearing in the international trading system which have major implications for the future health of both our region and the world economy:

  • bilateral trade pressures associated with the significant trade imbalances between a number of regional countries and the United States;
  • a trend towards the formation of bilateral or regional trading arrangements which run the risk of undermining a truly multilateral trading system; and
  • there are fundamental tensions within the GATT framework of multilateral trade.”

One could change a few words here and there and we could be describing the world situation today.

APEC after 2020

How then can APEC contribute to the regional and global economic recovery?

The pandemic and its brutal aftermath should bring together members behind a collective purpose. The importance of such a vision or rallying cry today is that, as shown by our survey results, we are beset by low levels of confidence in the future. A long-term strategic framework that sets a positive direction for reform and growth for regional governments with people at the center will send a positive signal for businesses to plan ahead. 

This is the Asia-Pacific moment. APEC can play a key role today in sending a positive signal about the future direction for the region. A starting point is the post-2020 vision presented by PECC: “An Asia-Pacific community of open, interconnected, and innovative economies cooperating to deliver opportunity, prosperity, and a sustainable future to all their peoples.”

Without a framework that builds on a vision of this type, there is a risk that the recovery will be much slower than it needs to be, opportunities to sustain reform will not be taken, inefficient policies adopted for short-term goals will remain stuck in place, and investment plans will be put on hold. The Covid-19 crisis is accelerating change, and economies will be taking different approaches in response to it. APEC remains a relatively informal organization through which genuine dialogue can occur and relationships of trust can be built. It can help tackle the sense of pessimism by shifting toward a common vision. It also provides an essential platform to exchange views on current policy choices, understand their motivations and appreciate their international implications.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute

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