The 27th APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting was convened on the 20th of November, 2020 with the presence of all 21 members of the organization for the first time in two years, as the annual meeting in 2019 was canceled due to domestic unrest within the host country, Chile. Unlike all the previous sessions, this year’s meeting was a virtual one; the COVID-19 Pandemic resulted in even leaders of nations adapting to online conferences to address international issues. The forum this year was chaired by the Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and was also based on the theme chosen by his country which was ‘Optimising Human Potential Towards a Resilient Future of Shared Prosperity. Pivot. Prioritize. Progress.

The agenda of the meeting this year was COVID-19 and the road to recovery from the effects of the pandemic. While addressing the forum, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte of the Philippines acknowledged the fact that although the world’s immediate and “right” response to the pandemic was to save lives, as a result of which economies were brought to a halt, it is the need of the hour to now work towards the recovery of economies while helping people adjust to the “new normal”. This is because the road to recovery is complex, comprehensive, and an enormous one. He also emphasized the need to simultaneously work on the economies as well as the health of citizens instead of rushing recovery interventions in only one sphere. On the same grounds, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin talked about the significance of organizations like APEC in helping countries get back on their feet and claimed that the role of the organization in these times was one of an “incubator” and “enabler”. Thus, PM Yassin reiterated the need for a cooperative and multilateral approach that will help the members overcome the challenge they face today. Keeping these issues in mind the Forum came out with the 2020 Kuala Lumpur Declaration and the APEC Putrajaya Vision.

The Kuala Lumpur Declaration

Unlike the 26th Leaders forum where the tradition of a joint declaration could not be followed due to the US-China relations and their disagreement on the language of the text, this year the leaders were able to finally adopt a joint declaration. They issued the 2020 Kuala Lumpur Declaration, to help all the countries of the Asia Pacific region to recover from the adverse effects the pandemic has left on their health and economies. The Declaration seeks to create a “strong, balanced, inclusive, sustainable, innovative and secure” approach to economic growth and interventions and recognizes the importance of the coordination and cooperation of all the member countries in achieving this prosperity. The members agreed to prioritize the ‘narrative of trade and investment’, ‘inclusive economic participation through digital economy and technology’, and ‘driving innovative sustainability.’

The Forum did not fail to recognize how the countries have managed to adapt to the unprecedented times. They welcomed the establishment of various digital platforms that have been useful in sharing information about the virus and commended all the frontline workers who have been fighting against this virus. The leaders pledged to increase cooperation to enhance activities in the health sector such as research, production, and distribution of vaccines and other medical products and incentivize innovation as it is ‘extensive immunizations’ that will help end the pandemic. They also acknowledged that digital technologies play a vital role in protecting the Asia-Pacific region from health threats, as it is technology which can help the health systems in becoming more resilient, scalable and sustainable. Thus, the role of digital technology in achieving universal health coverage was realised.

At the economic front, the members were cognizant of  the unpropitious situation that the economies of various countries were facing , and agreed to cooperate and allow for a smooth movement of not just essential goods and services but also flow of investment by resolving trade barriers which would ensure a steady supply of such services and information. The leaders committed to abide by the trade rules set by the WTO and the Multilateral Trading System of the APEC Business Advisory Council as it is these rules and guidelines that will aid the advancement of economic integration within the Asian Pacific region. In this context, the Chinese President Xi Jinping warned the leaders that an approach that adopted protectionism in trade would only keep the countries from developing and thus, pushed countries towards enhancing agreements of free trade. Lastly, they seek to advance trade and investment by developing infrastructure which can improve regional connectivity.

Members addressed the need for inclusive economic participation through digital economy and technology and planned to allow for the development of this new economy by opening opportunities for MSMEs, promoting innovative technology, and ensuring that this new era of ICT is secure, accessible, open, and reliable. They aim to achieve this by reducing digital gaps and promoting digital skills so that this new digital economy is inclusive of all demographics and thus, emphasize the need to develop digital infrastructure to make way for this inclusiveness. More importantly, they admitted to the need to share digital information to adapt to this new digital era and agreed to cooperate and collaborate to ensure the flow of this data.

The Declaration also talks about the need for inclusive sustainability. The leaders committed to ensuring food security and facilitating affordable and cleaner energy that is available and accessible to all. It also plans to promote policies that support efforts to mitigate climate change, natural disasters, and strengthen a country’s response to such disasters. Lastly, the forum also swore towards strengthening stakeholder engagement in the road to recovery by welcoming private sector partnerships, contributions from regional and international organisations such as the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council, the ASEAN Secretariat, and the Pacific Islands Forum. They also welcomed the outcome of the meetings of the APEC Ministries and Sectoral Ministries Meetings on  health, finance, women, small and medium enterprises, food security, trade and economy.

APEC Putrajaya Vision 2040 

The Forum proclaimed the APEC Putrajaya Vision 2040 which is one that seeks to create an Asia Pacific community that is peaceful, dynamic, resilient, and open, within the next two decades, through good governance and stakeholder engagement. This 2040 vision replaces the Bogor Goals that the organization had set in 1994. It aims to enhance the three economic drivers which are ‘trade and investment’, ‘innovation and digitalization’ and a ‘ strong, balanced, secure, sustainable and inclusive growth” through partnership, shared responsibility, and respect

The APEC Leaders’ Forum 2020 concluded with all the countries pledging to take a stable, sustainable, and inclusive step to recover from the Pandemic. As an organization, they have acknowledged the need for cooperation of all the members since no country will be able to get back on its feet on its own, and thus, are willing to work together for international interests instead of just working for their own country’s interests. The leaders now look forward to the next forum which is to be chaired by New Zealand in 2021.

By Anuja Prasad, Research Associate, Policy, LQF