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APEC brings Hawaii to apex of trade scene

LAST UPDATED: 12:51 p.m. HST, Nov 9, 2011

At long last, it's showtime.

This week's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting will be a showcase of Hawaii to the world, and numerous local companies see it as a chance to increase their visibility and sales abroad.

But it's much more than that. Indeed, Hawaii hosting APEC 2011 Leaders Week through next Sunday comes with a slew of public-space closures and restrictions -- inconvenient but necessary considering that 21 world leaders will descend on our island speck of the world, including President Barack Obama, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

More than 20,000 convention-related visitors are expected to give Hawaii's economy a $120 million boost. A raft of complex economic meetings will swirl, all in the primary effort to discuss and draw trade around the Pacific Rim. The global spotlight is on Obama's lead in proposing a nine-country Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement that could bring free trade throughout the Asia-Pacific region. He is poised to announce formation of a TPP, at least in tentative form, with an outline of the pact expected to be a central topic among APEC leaders and delegates, despite a misguided pharmaceuticals plan that could be a spoiler. Obama has backed away from the Bush administration's more liberal stance on foreign access to affordable medicines.

Many Hawaii businesses will be more than detached spectators at such a discussion. In recent years, the state has been recognized as a launching pad for numerous goods sold elsewhere in the world, especially in the Pacific area. According to the U.S. Commerce Department's International Trade Administration, 714 companies exported goods from Hawaii in 2008, and 638 of them were small- and medium-sized firms with fewer than 500 employees that generated two-fifths of the state's total exports.

Hawaii exports to Singapore have grown by more than 1,000 percent since the U.S. trade agreement with that country took effect in 2004, according to the administration. The Washington-based Business Round- table study two years ago found that foreign trade jobs in Hawaii numbered 165,704, or 20.5 percent of the state's employment, the highest proportion in the country.

Tim Johns, vice chairman of the APEC 2011 Hawaii Host Committee, said APEC in Hawaii is seen "as an opportunity to get our business success stories in front of as many eyes as possible." The committee, which has worked for two years toward this week, has teamed with the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii to form the Hawaii Virtual Business Marketplace, an interactive website to advertise and market their products and services aimed at global audiences. Five local Hawaii Business Innovation Showcase awardees, in particular, will have face-time chances with top Asia-Pacific government and corporate officials to lead the effort to gain recognition for Hawaii: Big Island Carbon, Sopogy Inc., HNU-Energy, Trex Enterprises Corp. and Skai Ventures.

Last month, Obama signed into law trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia, trade expansion that had been dormant for more than four years. The delay reduced the enthusiasm by other countries, which went ahead with pacts without the United States. India, Korea, Australia and New Zealand have joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) while Japan has signed numerous agreements. India trades with Thailand and Malaysia and is negotiating free trade with the European Union. China has agreements with ASEAN, Singapore, Pakistan, New Zealand, Chile, Peru and Costa Rica.

APEC 2011 security will disrupt routines for many, especially in Waikiki, Kapiolani, Ala Moana and parts of Kapolei and Ko Olina. It has spurred clearings of homeless encampments and millions of dollars of roadwork and beautification. Anti-APEC protests are sure to occur, which is fine in a democratic society that values free speech and diversity of views.

Moana Nui, an "Un-APEC" summit focusing on localized self-sufficiency and self-determination, also will be happening this week.

But there's no doubting the unique distinction that Hawaii will enjoy hosting APEC, a top-level summit which will not be hosted in the U.S. for at least another 22 years.

In addition to the exposure Honolulu will receive as host city, Hawaii businesses, like companies throughout this country and region, will have a stake in the path toward a Trans-Pacific Partnership.

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