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Opinion

APEC shows virtues of multilateralism despite Chile cancellation

New host Malaysia will aid efforts to push forward free trade pacts

Even after the suspension of APEC Leaders' Week in Chile, can-do attitude of participants remains.   © Reuters

Malaysia, the 2020 host of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, the forum which brings together 21 diverse economies, holds its first APEC events today. APEC was in the news in November because our leaders' meetings in Chile were suspended after civil unrest there. But am I optimistic about the future of our group? Absolutely.

Events of recent weeks have only reinforced my conviction that APEC is exactly what the global economy needs in times of turbulence.

From my first day on the job leading the APEC secretariat, I had been anticipating the 30th anniversary meeting of the region's leaders in Chile to endorse initiatives that advance more inclusive growth. APEC and the trade and investment policies it develops have enabled economies to open up, create jobs and grow almost threefold in three decades. Global shifts may take place, but APEC's commitment to the forum is constant.

It became apparent after the suspension of APEC Leaders' Week that this can-do attitude remains. For our members, optimism about APEC and multilateral cooperation prevails. Three factors support our positive outlook.

First, there is encouraging progress with free trade pacts. The region is home to two of the largest potential trade deals -- the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Both are pathways toward a free trade area for Asia-Pacific. When fully ratified, these agreements will have immense global and local impact. They will lower the costs of goods and services and expand access to both, benefiting the population at large.

These trade megadeals are expected to spur economic expansion, including in services trade, a potential driver of future growth for the region.

Another cause for optimism? Our members' collective desire to wrap up our work this year and reflect on our shared goals.

Many were understandably concerned by the events in Chile. Yet they were firm in their commitment to advancing the year's goals, among them plans for collective action to address plastic pollution in our oceans; illegal and unregulated fishing; and the economic empowerment of women and small businesses.

They understand the importance of moving the agreements forward as APEC has an outsized influence on these issues. The region's fisheries, for example, make up 70% of global marine fisheries catch. More than half of the plastic waste littering the world's coasts and oceans comes from the APEC region.

A boy collects plastic materials to sell in Manila: more than half of the plastic waste littering the world's coasts and oceans comes from the APEC region.   © Reuters

Some of these agreements took time to reach consensus. That's natural. All of APEC's achievements, from reducing tariffs to streamlining customs procedures and establishing a framework for cross-border privacy rules, require intensive deliberations. Time and time again, members find common ground. APEC shows that multilateralism works. Cooperation matters.

As Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said, "APEC not only remains relevant and important but also has a bigger role as a vehicle for economies to work together and find solutions to the issues."

The third reason for our upbeat view is the continued support of the private sector and civil society.

When APEC officials deliberate on economic policy, we listen also to established businesses, small enterprises and industry associations. Some of the parties consulted may surprise you. For example, participants in APEC activities this year included businesses led by indigenous communities. Practitioners across sectors and income levels help us to identify the policy gaps that impede more inclusive growth.

When APEC Leaders' Week was canceled, our stakeholders expressed sadness. It was not only a venue for the U.S.-China phase one trade agreement to be considered. The cancellation meant a missed opportunity for productive and essential public-private dialogue, they told our members.

Fortunately, plans are now up and running for public-private dialogue to resume in Malaysia, which has also invited China and the U.S. to sign the proposed agreement there.

Plans evolve. While the experience of recent weeks is new ground for APEC, we are not fazed. Learning has been integral to APEC's development. Challenges keep us agile.

Our members certainly proved their agility when they convened at the secretariat to close 2019. APEC adapts. It should and it will, as the forum prepares to finalize in 2020 its vision for the next 30 years.

Our forum is built on consensus, and the sometimes long process of adapting to different points of view in the pursuit of trust and collaboration. We do so because we know that when we agree to agree, we all succeed. Policies ensue that lead to more jobs, higher incomes and greater opportunities for all. That commitment to partnership is good for the region -- and the world.

We look forward to reaffirming in Malaysia, and in New Zealand in 2021, APEC's tried and tested conviction that a shared future is built together.

Rebecca Sta Maria is the Executive Director of the APEC secretariat.

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