by Peter Volberding, BASC Research Assistant
At the 2009 APEC Summit in Singapore, government leaders pledged increased economic cooperation and regional integration under the slogan “Sustaining Growth, Connecting the Region.” Additionally, in the wake of the global financial crisis, leaders emphasized APEC’s long-term goal of trade liberalization by condemning recent acts of protectionism, particularly between the APEC member countries of the US and China. However, high-profile international meetings have been met with limited success as predictably vapid diplomatic speeches have preempted action.
The recent G20 and ASEAN meetings are prime examples. Both have produced little more than broad overtures of cooperation. The recent APEC meeting seems to have succumbed to a similar fate. While APEC leaders productively brainstormed and discussed long-term growth strategies, anti-corruption policies, and programs to facilitate cross-border business exchange, they only produced vague goals and failed to agree on a comprehensive climate strategy (possibly auguring the fate of the upcoming Copenhagen Summit).
However, the 2009 APEC Summit was undoubtedly a huge success—just not by the traditional metrics of an international meeting. Certainly the event helped increase dialogue among global leaders. But the real progress was made outside the summit’s walls, in those often overlooked ‘sideline meetings.’
For example, President Barack Obama met with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on the sidelines of the APEC Summit, and discussed the United States’ intention to negotiate membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. Obama also became the first US President to meet with all 10 nations of ASEAN—including Myanmar. Furthermore, his personal diplomatic meetings included political and economic leaders from Mexico, Australia, Indonesia, and Russia.
Taiwanese and Chinese trade delegations met in the hopes of reviving a stalled Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), highlighting Taiwan’s visible, yet unofficial, influence in the region. Taiwan also commenced negotiations with Singapore on customs cooperation. Moreover, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev met for the second time this year, hailing growing economic and political ties. The Russian and South Korean foreign ministers met to discuss the persistent North Korean threat.
Trade deals were also at the forefront. Before the start of the APEC Summit, delegations from Thailand and Peru celebrated the finalization ceremony for an FTA that reduces or eliminates tariffs on over 70% of bilaterally traded goods. Just a few days prior, Peruvian President Alan Garcia additionally negotiated the anticipated Korea-Peru FTA, which is expected to be finalized soon. President Obama further hinted that the stalled KORUS free trade agreement could be revived.
With the number of high-level international meetings on the upswing, there will be no shortage of broad, noncommittal gestures from global leaders. However, simply because these summits do not produce readily tangible results does not mean progress was not achieved. Sideline meetings have proven to be highly effective in promoting regional integration. So perhaps before we bemoan the ostensible lack of progress, we should take a second look at the broader impact of international summits.