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ASIA TRADE: What has Asia’s trade summit season delivered?

The end of the Asian ‘summit season’ brings a big sigh of relief to most participating members.  The region appears to have gotten through November without any apparent disasters, leaders managed to agree on statements, and some new initiatives were announced for trade.

If summit season were to stop, the consequences could be serious.  At a time of continuing economic disruption, it is more urgent than ever that leaders and staff are given opportunities for informal and formal dialogue to address collective issues of importance to the region.

This year, the jamboree started in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, with a series of Summits and sideline events for ASEAN, rotated to Bali, Indonesia, for the G20, and wrapped up in Bangkok, Thailand, with the APEC Leader’s Meeting.  After several years of Covid-19 disruptions, delegations were finally able to meet in person.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations – ASEAN – and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation – APEC – meetings both highlight a range of trade-related outcomes, but the most important “deliverable” of the summit season is  the mere fact that these sessions occur annually in November.

ASEAN trade agreement upgrades

On the trade front, two announcements may be most relevant.

ASEAN, together with Australia and New Zealand, announced the substantial conclusion of their regional trade agreement – AANZFTA – upgrade.  Although ASEAN can keep commitments in the “substantial conclusion” basket for a while, it seems members are hoping to release the texts and commitments next year with entry into force before the end of Indonesia’s Chair year.

ASEAN has six ASEAN+1 agreements in place.  Several have already been upgraded, with multiple upgrades to the ASEAN+China FTA.  The original AANZFTA entered into force for all parties in 2012.  Upgrade talks were slowed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

ASEAN members have also begun the accession process to expand the organisation to include Timor Leste.  Talks have been ongoing for some time and the actual accession is unlikely to take place quickly.

Power of the calendar

It can be easy to dismiss these meetings as mere “talk fests.”

The joint communiques can appear opaque, with limited concrete details.  But getting them issued requires intensive work behind the scenes to line up consensus.  Absent annual summits, there would be little need to focus attention on areas of agreement.

Annual summits also serve at least two additional, important purposes.

They serve as a “hard deadline” for ongoing workplans, projects and programs.  Absent a summit, for example, ASEAN members Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam would probably stretch deadlines endlessly.

As it is, the ASEAN summit requires that all projects get completed, with all approvals into place, no later than August to be summarised into the reports for ministers in September and handed to leaders in November.

The power of the calendar to focus attention on deadlines is critical.  ASEAN and APEC both involve a very diverse range of members that do not always have aligned interests.  The institutional mechanisms for coordination are complicated.  A summit deadline with leaders present concentrates the mind in way that lots of smaller meetings cannot.

People networks

Finally, a summit provides opportunities for members to meet.  This is a point that is both obvious and often overlooked.  ASEAN and APEC do not just allow leaders to meet, review collective progress, and enjoy tea or dinner together.  It also provides an easy mechanism for sideline meetings between leaders.

These sideline conversations—whether a quick chat over coffee or a more formal discussion—can prove critical.  They can allow members to meet with significantly less pomp and circumstance than a head-of-state visit.  Sideline meetings at ASEAN or APEC do not require any deliverables to be announced, although they may provide a convenient opportunity for such statements to be released.

While much of the attention is focused on the activities of the leaders, they are accompanied by often large teams of officials.  Given the relatively sprawling nature of both ASEAN and APEC, staff can be drawn from a wide range of agencies or ministries.  These November summits allow diverse staff members to connect, coordinate and plan.

Many trade officials – and staff in other functional areas as well – will report that they have made life-long connections and even friendships as a result of the annual meeting cadence of ASEAN and APEC meetings.  As staff get promoted and rotate, these connections can make future interactions less fraught or faster and easier to deliver.

Without ASEAN and APEC meetings, it is hard to see where such connections might take place.  Other organisations have different configurations of members, exclude many important participants, or have a less rigid and more ad-hoc meeting schedule.

ASEAN does not just hold an internal summit.  It also holds a range of meetings with ASEAN Dialogue Partners in various configurations.

The missing RCEP meeting

Perhaps striking is what was missing from the Summits in ASEAN: nothing on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership or RCEP.  Typically, ASEAN has held a summit for RCEP at the end of the internal meetings and in conjunction with ASEAN’s various Dialogue Partner meetings.  The five non-ASEAN members of RCEP – Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea – are also all Dialogue Partners for ASEAN.  This year, no RCEP meeting was held.

Although RCEP came into force at the start of this year, it currently includes only 12 of the 15 members: Indonesia, Myanmar and Philippines are not yet active partners.  While RCEP officials remain hopeful that all 15 will be able to make announcements about their entry into force prior to the end of this year, the window for doing so is growing short.

APEC leaders’s declaration

APEC has been holding an annual Leader’s Summit for decades.  While the meeting is mostly known for the outfits worn by leaders in the group photo at the end, like ASEAN, APEC represents an excellent opportunity for meeting.

Although APEC’s formal agenda and ongoing project activities are less intensive than ASEAN, the APEC Summit provides a hard deadline to ongoing projects.  It also provides opportunities for sideline meetings with a different group of members.

The most notable outcome of the 2022 Bangkok meeting was that members managed to issue a Leader’s Declaration. The declaration reaffirmed APEC’s commitment to open trade and World Trade Organization reform, highlighted the importance of services and sustainability. Its signatories and agreed to further work supporting a Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific or FTAAP.  The statement also noted differences of opinion within the group, particularly around the war in Ukraine, its economic impacts, and the use of sanctions.

APEC has been plagued by difficulties getting alignment around consensus statements – and signs were not promising that Thailand, the host, would manage it either.

While that may appear to be a relatively meager harvest, particularly given the level of activity surrounding these high-profile events, it is always important to recall that what you do not see is often more critical that what is visible.

The opportunity to meet and connect and the use of the calendar to create decision-forcing deadlines are important, overlooked, outcomes from summits.

 

Deborah Elms is founder and executive director of the Asian Trade Centre in Singapore.

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