Free Trade first: The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation will be convening governments and business to discuss trade and economic integration in Chile right before the Climate Summit

By: Mary Louise Malig*

[en español] After the massive mobilizations and climate strikes that took place in numerous cities around the planet, with an estimate of more than six million people participating, many are now turning their attention to the coming United Nations Framework on Climate Change Conference or COP 25 for short. COP 25 will be help in Santiago, Chile from December 2-13, 2019 and expectations are running high. Time is literally running out and one of the deafening cries of the youth is to end business as usual and take bold action in order to stop climate change, effects of which have already been devastating homes, forests, livelihoods, territories, peoples, animals, and frontline communities. Will the world leaders, whose decisions since the Cancún climate COP have watered down requirements to pledges to voluntary contributions, listen and actually stop business as usual and take bold action to make deep emission cuts and make polluters pay? Some will argue that here may have been a few achievements but overall, the backward movement of the past COPs do not bode well for this one in Chile.

Another relevant event happening before COP 25, that does not bode well for those demanding that the planet be put first before business, is a high level economic forum called the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation or APEC.

But what is the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation or APEC?

According to, “The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Forum is the main forum for promoting growth, technical and economic cooperation, trade facilitation and liberalization, and investment in the Asia-Pacific region. It was created in 1989, at the behest of Australia and Japan, to strengthen the community of the Asia-Pacific region.”

The 21 Member Economies of APEC are: the United States; Australia; Brunei Darussalam; Canada; Chile; China; Hong Kong, China; Indonesia; Japan; Malaysia; Mexico; New Zealand; Papua New Guinea; Peru; The Philippines; Russia; Singapore; Republic of Korea; Chinese Taipei; Thailand; and Viet Nam. APEC has three official observers: the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Secretariat, the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council and the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat.

Take note of the critically important distinction in the membership of the APEC. The members are not listed as member countries, they are listed as member economies, that is a very important distinction. The criterion is to be a separate economy. Their primary goal then, as economies, is to create a free trade area in the region, foster economic growth, cooperation, trade and investment and promote business and trade facilitation. From the outset, the target partners of APEC has been the private sector. Early on, the APEC Business Advisory Council was established and has been thriving as they are given three senior business executives per country to be part of the council that then in turn issues their recommendations in achieving the goal of economic growth.

True, the APEC is informal, much less formal than other multilateral forums. APEC Members all have their right to be part of the discussions, they decide by consensus but this can result in various results. Discussions may not reach consensus and that would be fine. All Members can reach consensus but it is still up to the Member whether they will decide to voluntarily implement the decision. The APEC is also usually known as the forum where 21 heads of state wear the traditional dress or garb of the host country the meetings is taking place at.

This makes the APEC look like a forum with not much clout because of their voluntary and consensus ways, however, a deeper look into the history of APEC belies a different being. In 1994, APEC leaders agreed on the “Bogor Goals”, they adopted “the long-term goal of free and open trade and investment in the Asia-Pacific… no later than the year 2020.”

As details:

“The Bogor Goals have inspired member economies to pursue individual and collective action to reduce barriers to trade and investment, one result of which was a region-wide drop in average tariffs, which were 17 per cent in the 1980s to around 5 per cent today. Free trade and investment do not rely on tariffs alone, though.

The Bogor Declaration did not prescribe specific actions, but it did provide guidance: member economies are to implement unilateral policies, or negotiate bilateral, regional or multilateral agreements, provided they are consistent with the rules of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and with those of the GATT’s successor, the World Trade Organization.”

APEC and the free trade agreements

Going back to the rather voluntary and informal ways of the APEC, while some have dismissed the forum, those who are not easily distracted by the outside appearance, realize that the APEC has much more geo-political clout than it shows. The APEC are composed of Member Economies whose heads of state meet every year. And they see the APEC informality as an opportune space to brainstorm and germinate ideas and proposals. One such long term goal stated in its early days was the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP). 

The APEC also continues to have a hand, albeit informal, in the discussions of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). It was also a space for debate during the negotiations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and it also is involved in the Association of East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its discussions with free trade agreement partners.  

Interesting to note as well is that the APEC’s Host Economy of the Year is invited to the G20 meetings. Another informal forum that has no legally binding agreement, and yet, both have been able to wield a great deal of influence on economies, free trade agreements, financial matters and facilitating and fostering business and transnational corporations’ operations and growth.

It is crucial to note however that APEC is not all smooth sailing. Even with their voluntary, do what you want, when you want kind of consensus format, there are still moments of great tension. The TPP for example, was seen as a US-led agreement and they only invited 12 of the 21 in APEC: The twelve nations that negotiated the TPP were the U.S., Japan, Australia, Peru, Malaysia, Vietnam, New Zealand, Chile, Singapore, Canada, Mexico, and Brunei Darussalam. Tensions also reportedly flare when the smaller economies feel pressured by China. However, the open space format also allows for tensions to be negotiated. This is why the APEC in Chile will be watched with great interest to see if and how tensions between the US and China will or will not unravel.

(These will de delved deeper into in a follow-up article)

The APEC negotiators have already been meeting

The whole year round, APEC groupings by thematic meet to regularly keep on top of the discussions and deliver well negotiated proposals to present to Ministers and then Heads of State in order for informed decisions to be made at the yearly Ministerials.

There will be Finance Ministers’ meetings, Economic Leaders’ meetings and APEC Business Advisory Council Dialogue with APEC Economic Leaders. Then the APEC Ministerial Meeting from November 13-14, 2019. Most interesting is that after that, there will be a three-day event called the APEC CEO Summit, from November 14-16, 2019, in Santiago, Chile.

Why does this all matter? It matters because proposals, decisions and pledges made at the UN Climate Summits are mostly dependent on the finance it is able to get from governments, institutions and business. How are all the bold actions going to be funded? The sad reality is that because of these financial needs and revolving doors of corporations and governments, the UN Climate Summit has become beholden to corporations and governments whose interests are aligned to the goals of free trade agreements, whether it be bilateral, regional or multilateral or the World Trade Organization or an “informal” one such as the APEC.

There is a lot to be worried about as the APEC Ministerial Agenda includes digital trade and integration (In a subsequent article, the APEC Ministerial Agenda will be broken down into greater detail.); but also that economic decisions that may have great consequences on the climate negotiations but also people and nature are being made behind closed doors. 

This begs the question: are the financial pledges and promises of big changes to be clean and just and not do business as usual, be all a done deal amongst the governments and corporations before the COP 25 Climate Summit even begins?

*Mary Louise Malig is a researcher, policy analyst, and activist currently based in Bolivia. She has followed and written on the issues of trade for almost twenty years now and also follows other issues such as climate and agriculture.  

*Photo by: Gobierno de Chile / CC BY (2015)
APEC Summit tradition of wearing the traditional or national wear of the host country. The national dress featured here is the Filipino Barong, a cloth made from pineapple.

One thought on “Free Trade first: The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation will be convening governments and business to discuss trade and economic integration in Chile right before the Climate Summit

Comments are closed.