In its first 100 days, the Biden administration has successfully conveyed to the world that the United States is back on the global stage. Using well-sequenced and high-profile outreach, it has displayed a reinvigorated focus on repairing alliances and building partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region.
The harder work of substantive international action still looms ahead, however, and will require the Biden team to back its welcome words with concrete actions — particularly as it seeks to advance its priorities on inclusive growth, climate change and innovation. To succeed, the administration will need to creatively utilize a wide array of existing international and regional platforms, while also building new coalitions of like-minded countries. The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum can and should be an important part of this effort.
Comprised of 21 Asia-Pacific economies, APEC has proven itself time and again to be a useful channel to foster new ideas on topics such as fair trade and investment rules, gender parity, disaster preparedness and sustainable and inclusive growth. APEC’s non-binding character is an important strength of the organization, as it allows members to be more open to exploring new ideas than in many other international fora.
New Zealand, the APEC host country for 2021, is promoting an ambitous agenda that aligns in many respects with the priorities of the Biden administration. As Wellington shapes deliverables for the November APEC summit, the United States has an important opening to advance concrete initiatives, including in these areas:
Economic equity and inclusion
There are several ways Washington can advance its ideas for more inclusive and equitable economic and trade policies in APEC. By doing so, it can both build regional support for its agenda, and allay the concerns expressed by some nations that Biden’s worker-centric trade policy smacks of protectionism.
First, implementing a work program in APEC on workforce skills and training for the next generation of technology-based jobs would be enormously useful. Exchanging best practices, experiences of policy successes and failures, and ideas on how the private sector and educational institutions can contribute would be of immense interest to APEC members — many of whom are facing similar challenges of matching their workforces to the skill sets needed for the jobs of the future.
Second, the United States can lead APEC in expanding its stakeholder outreach beyond just the business community. By including labor groups, environmental advocates, and civil society more broadly in its work, APEC will be in a better position to develop initiatives that deliver for our citizens writ large.
Third, APEC should upgrade and expand its small and medium enterprise (SME) promotion work, including by aligning it more closely with its digital policy agenda. This could help to promote inclusivity in the global trading system, particularly for SMEs that are led by women and other minorities. Finally, the United States could use the APEC platform to share initial thoughts on updating trade agreements to better reflect the concerns and priorities of the middle class. This could help build support for its new trade agenda, while alleviating emerging concerns.
APEC is also a strong platform for forwarding the U.S. agenda on combating combat climate change. The U.S. will find a strong partner in 2021 host New Zealand, which is putting forward a series of initiatives, such as on facilitating trade in environmental goods and services, to promote sustainable trade and development. Working closely with Wellington could help to lock in an ambitious APEC climate agenda for the coming years.
APEC, for example, can be leveraged to help developing countries identify green infrastructure projects of potential interest to private investors. This work could include the fostering of a trusted carbon offset market, through which investors from rich countries invest in green projects in developing countries in exchange for carbon credits.
An initial proof of concept is within reach in APEC. The organization can also be used to induce climate-related corporate disclosures, which will promote “green finance” markets, incentivizing global companies to not only reduce their own carbon footprints but also decarbonize their entire value chains.
The digital economy
Finally, APEC and its member economies can pursue a digital trade and economic policy agenda that emphasizes U.S. values on issues like data privacy and allowing the free flow of information and digital services across borders.
Digital technology, for example, is critical to facilitating trade and investment for SMEs. APEC can promote practical rules that help small businesses reach markets across the region, through e-invoicing, e-signature and e-payment. APEC economies are leaders in this field, as seen in the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement recently signed by New Zealand, Chile and Singapore — with others poised to join.
New Zealand will host a pivotal APEC Leaders meeting in November, when it will announce a set of deliverables that matter greatly for the region. Washington has an important opportunity to help shape those outcomes by bringing ideas to the table now that reflect U.S. values and its agenda to advance the livelihood of the middle class through inclusion, climate change, and innovation. Washington can also lay plans for the future by reaching out now to Southeast Asian ally Thailand, the 2022 APEC chair, and by volunteering to host APEC 2023 in the United States.
Wendy Cutler is vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute.
Kurt Tong is partner and an executive committee member at The Asia Group.
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