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APEC is key on the global stage, and Hawaii has a strategic role

By Charles E. Morrison


This week, leaders of 21 Asia-Pacific economies convene in Honolulu for the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. This column is the last in a series of monthly ones on APEC issues by experts at the East-West Center.


Honolulu now stands at the eve of hosting the leaders, officials, business executives and media of the 21 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation economies. Much of the discussion locally has naturally focused on the impacts and potential benefits that hosting the meetings will bring to our city and state. But why is APEC important on the global level, and what might its future hold?

Despite its emphasis on economics and trade, the importance of APEC, in my view, is foremost about conflict reduction. The first APEC Leaders Meeting in Seattle in 1993 was also the first time in history that the heads of the three largest Pacific economies -- the United States, Japan and China -- had met together in the same place. For several years, APEC was the only venue where the U.S. and Chinese leaders regularly met. It has also been one of the few venues for contacts between China and Taiwan, even in the bleakest years of cross-Strait relations, and other nations have often used the sidelines of APEC for bilateral meetings to address key nation-to-nation issues.

APEC is also about building shared understanding of the region's challenges and potential solutions. Every APEC "meeting," even the quarterly gatherings of senior officials, is actually composed of dozens of committee meetings, forums and working groups on both broad and very specific issues, usually with stakeholder participation. Using these interactions to identify shared values and goals, and to demonstrate best practices, helps provide the basis of effective cooperation that can extend beyond the APEC process itself.

Third, APEC is about global leadership. As the trans-Pacific region has grown to overshadow the trans-Atlantic region as the core area of global growth, no significant global issue -- from climate change to public health to international security -- can now be effectively addressed without Asia-Pacific regional participation. But becoming a core area also means that the world is increasingly looking to the countries of Asia and the Pacific for leadership on global issues. APEC provides opportunities for them to cultivate a global outlook and increasingly provide collective global leadership.

Like any international institution, APEC has short- comings. It does not directly address security issues, for instance. Many also believe it does not have optimum membership, although there are differing views of what "optimum" might be. Despite the APEC Leaders' 2009 declaration in Singapore in the midst of the financial crisis that the region should avoid returning to "conventional growth" in favor of "balanced, sustainable, and inclusive" growth, there has been little effort to monitor and assess performance on each of these critical dimensions. Finally, the vision of APEC, as a broad community of cooperating societies, is narrowed in some minds only to trade and investment issues, and only to government and business interests.

Because APEC does not include traditional political and security issues in its formal agenda, President Barack Obama will be continuing on to Indonesia for the East Asia Summit, or EAS, meeting, which does. That summit includes most of the same leaders, and some observers see it as competition for APEC. But it also has weaknesses -- it is always held in Southeast Asia rather than shared by the broader region -- and being much newer, the EAS is far less institutionalized.

Over the longer term, there will undoubtedly be a further evolution and rationalization of the "regional architecture" of Asia Pacific-focused international organizations. What is essential is not the survival or dominance of any particular structure, but that the region can have regular, institutionalized, effective processes to deal with problems, promote cooperation, and provide global leadership.

Hawaii has a strategic role to play. No other place better reflects the Asia-Pacific region's demographic diversity or its aspirations to be a region of peace, tolerance and prosperity.

It is a symbolic metaphor, as well as a geographic fact, that while all previous APEC Leaders Meetings have taken place around the rim of the Pacific, this one is at its heart. APEC 2011 is not just a week of meetings in Hawaii, but a golden opportunity for our community to become more deeply and continually involved in the institutions and issues of the region that is so important to our welfare.

Dr. Charles E. Morrison is president of the East-West Center.

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