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APEC leaders' Beijing meeting is expected to further propel regional economic integration
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UPDATED: November 7, 2014 NO. 45, NOVEMBER 6, 2014
Impetus for Action
At APEC's annual meeting, vital questions about the Asia-Pacific region's common interests should take center stage
By Kerry Brown

China is certainly not immune to these issues, despite its maintenance of relatively high growth. Anxiety about sustainability issues has been a common feature of Chinese leaders' statements. Polluted air in cities over the last couple of years is only one of the more vivid reminders that the costs of more than 30 years of rapid growth on the Chinese physical environment have been steep. But there are similar worries about inequality, and about where to continue finding sources of growth.

The hunt for growth in an era when it has to be sustainable and more equitable therefore seems to be a coherent common theme across the APEC members. If this is the case, how best can members frame a common approach to the solution and modes of cooperation?

A unique framework

One proposal, on which APEC deliberates in November, is what steps might be taken to make the region more cohesive as a market. The European Union (EU), often held up as a model of multilateral cohesion, works best as a common market, and that indeed was its founding idea. Political, social and cultural linkages only grew later among its member states. For Asian countries, the appeal of the EU as a model is strongest in its success in creating at least a common concept of the market and the rules by which to engage within this across the different members with their different levels of development and domestic demands.

APEC is much more diverse and complex in its membership than the EU, and therefore thinking that it would be easy to set up a common market overnight would be wrong. But the aspiration is certainly there to at least provide a framework where there is better access to each other's markets, particularly in services, and a better trade foundation in terms of rules and procedures. This is particularly so in an era in which the World Trade Organization is unlikely to supply any new global agreements anytime soon, and where regional and bilateral trade deals are only likely to increase.

It will be a daunting task to try and encapsulate the idea of a common Asia-Pacific regional market in one statement or framework. Part of this is because the members will all be fighting for different things: Many will want good access to the vast Chinese market; others, to tap into better sharing of technology or intellectual property partnerships with the United States. Some will want more cooperation on the environment and resources, and the lifting of tariffs across the region. At the very least, however, the 2014 APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting should strive to set in place a broad framework where this discussion of common interests and how they are framed and prioritized should be constructed. There might also be some attempts to agree on how human migration across the region might work—but this, too, will be a tough issue on which to try to establish any consensus.

If the Asia-Pacific region is becoming the world's economic powerhouse, as most people now believe it is, APEC serves a crucial function in being a forum where ideas can be discussed by the people who might actually have the power to implement them. There is one simple, fundamental question the attendees have to ask: Which is the greater risk, getting new sources of growth by working together, or trying to solve these issues in a framework which still privileges local solutions? We will know by the middle of November and the end of the conference what sort of answer those attending have decided to opt for.

The author is an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review and executive director of the China Studies Center at the University of Sydney

Email us at: yanwei@bjreview.com

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