Photo: Alice Slater | Credit: - Photo: 2021

Emerging QUAD Appears to Be A Threat To APEC

Viewpoint by Kalinga Seneviratne

SYDNEY (IDN) — With the elevation of the QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) grouping to a head of state summit on March 12, it is opportune to ask what would happen to APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) that has been losing its shine in recent years.

Australia and Japan have been the main movers of QUAD to keep the United States (US) involved in the region, and this was also the main reason for the launch of APEC.

The Chinese have described QUAD as a movement towards creating an Asian version of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and thus the leaders of the four-member QUAD grouping consisting of the US, Australia, Japan and India were careful not to emphasize the military aspects of their mission, rather they focused on cooperation to invest, produce and distribute COVID-19 vaccines in the region. APEC was set up to do just that—facilitate manufacture, trade and services flow in the region.

At the second APEC leaders’ summit in Bogor (Indonesia) in 1994, the so-called ‘Bogor Declaration” that set the tone for the groupingDr Kalinga Seneviratne said that they will commit to achieving the goal of free and open trade and investments in the Asia-Pacific region, and this will be done by “reducing barriers to trade and investment and by promoting the free flow of goods, services and capital among our economies”.

But a review done in 2018 by the APEC Secretariat in Singapore acknowledged that there are many shortfalls in achieving this goal, and the ‘APEC Putrajaya Vision 2040’ adopted at the APEC summit in Malaysia last year, extended the mission by another 20 years. “We will embrace continuous improvement of APEC as an institution through good governance and stakeholder engagements,” the declaration said.

APEC was mooted at a time when western power was at its zenith after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. Thus, much of Asia saw globalization with a western focus as the path to economic prosperity. It was a time for opening up economies, but, in recent years with the US’s “America First” policy and trade war with China, Europe looking inwards, and COVID-19 lockdowns have shown the weaknesses of globalization and supply chains.

APEC was the brainchild of Japan and Australia, which planned it together with the then Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke laying the groundwork in January 1989, when he proposed an economic alliance of Asian and Pacific nations during a visit to Seoul.

It was at a time when Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad was proposing a formal grouping of East Asian countries that would facilitate consultation and consensus prior to negotiating with Europe or America or in multilateral trade negotiations. He argued at the time that with some of the most dynamic economies in the world, East Asia must speak with one voice.

Economies, not countries

APEC does not talk about countries or communities, but of economies. It was designed mainly to open up Asian economies for western goods, services and investments. But the rapid rise of China in the past three decades has changed the regional dynamics. It is China that is championing globalization now while the West is in a protective mood. Thus, QUAD, it seems, is more about blocking China’s globalization push rather than encourage it.

Without formal APEC participation, China has introduced the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to develop the much-needed infrastructure like roads, railways and ports across Asia that would connect the region to become the centre of the global economy. Neither the US nor Australia is a formal partner in this project. Though very much in the region, Japan has chosen not to join. India too because one of the railroads runs through the disputed Pakistan-controlled Kashmir region.

Unfortunately, the media (and even politicians) in the QUAD countries have labelled the BRI as a Chinese “debt trap”, when in fact, it could ideally be the vehicle for APEC’s vision of creating a free trade area and encouraging “stakeholder engagement”.

In a commentary published by the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia just before the 2020 APEC summit in Putrajaya in Malaysia, its Chairman Tan Sri Rastam Mohd argued that APEC was now drawing away from its fundamental commitment to consensus-building.

Quoting his former leader Dr Mahathir, Mohd said “a true Asia-Pacific community cannot be built on the basis of hegemony and imperial command”. He noted that serious issues within APEC have become quite evident since 2017, mainly due to competition between the US and China.  

“The situation now is far different from when APEC adopted the Bogor Goals. There are two competing preponderant powers in APEC, which have divergent views about the regional and global order. Globalization is receiving mixed reactions now compared with an almost wholehearted embrace in the early 1990s” he notes. “There is an increasing demand for inclusivity, equality and sustainability. What is certain is that after 30 years, APEC needs a new vision”.

Neither India nor any South Asian countries were invited to join APEC, while Australia and New Zealand, countries that have shunned Asia for a long time, were included. Repeated attempts by India to join APEC have been snubbed.

Lack of a common forum

Asia clearly lacks a common forum to articulate their viewpoints to the world. Europeans have such a forum in the European Union and their summits are attended by European leaders—no Asian leaders nor the US president is invited—unless it is a special meeting like this year’s COVID Summit to which President Biden has been invited to address via video link.

When the first East Asia Summit (EAS) was held in 2005 in Vientianne, India was invited along with Australia and New Zealand. With the inclusion of the US and Russia in the EAS in 2011, the very name has today become a joke. Every year when EAS leaders meet, even the Asian media focus on what the US President says not on what Asian leaders say. Thus, the US sets the agenda for Asians.

For Asia’s prosperity, China and India need to build trust—they should not be pushed into conflict. In May 2015, when the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited China, the two countries signed 24 agreements to set up industrial and cultural parks in each other’s country. “We have complemented each other in the past,” said Modi in an address in Shanghai to 22 Chinese CEOs where he talked about over 2000 years of knowledge and cultural flows between the two great civilizations. “As two major economies in Asia, the harmonious partnership between India and China is essential for economic development and political stability of the continent,” he added.

All these attempts at building bridges seem to have been sidelined after 20 Indian soldiers died in a skirmish with Chinese troops on the border in the Himalayas in June 2020. Two days after the event, an Indian friend in Delhi told me: “By attacking us in 1962 China lost the trust of our generation and this attack will make the current generation distrustful of China.” QUAD will not help to heal the wound—it may make it worse. Asia needs to learn the lessons from the devastation created in the Middle East by NATO interventions. [IDN-InDepthNews – 17 March 2021]

* Dr Kalinga Seneviratne is the Asia roaming correspondent of IDN-INPS. He is the founder of Lotus Communication Network (LCN), a prolific writer and editor. Published by SAGE, Mindful Communication for Sustainable Development: Perspectives from Asia is the latest book he has edited. It focuses on how ancient Asian teachings, particularly from the Buddhist, Hindu, and Confucius schools of thought, can enrich modern-day communication needs and help to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals espoused by the United Nations.

Image credit: Japan Josh

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