How the US can show it's once again an economic player in Asia

How the US can show it's once again an economic player in Asia
© Greg Nash

Closing the book on a busy fortnight of international meetings in Glasgow, Rome and Brunei is the Economic Leaders meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, this year hosted virtually by New Zealand on Nov. 12. Beyond supporting important near-term work on pandemic response, climate change and inclusive growth, President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden says he didn't 'overpromise' Finland PM pledges 'extremely tough' sanctions should Russia invade Ukraine Russia: Nothing less than NATO expansion ban is acceptable MORE is expected to use the occasion to invite his colleagues to the United States in 2023, when he will host a pivotal round of activity for the Asia-Pacific economic policy grouping.  

Biden has his work cut out for him. Most of the United States’ friends across the Pacific have been disappointed with a lack of U.S. leadership on the regional economic front in recent years, especially after the Trump administration’s retreat from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But with early and inclusive planning, accompanied by a focused set of realistic and impactful objectives, the chairing of APEC in 2023 can be an enormous opportunity for the United States to help shape the economic policies of the Asia-Pacific region in a positive direction for years to come. 

Established in 1989, APEC is the region’s leading economic organization, encompassing 60 percent of global GDP and half of global trade. Over the years, it has tackled pressing economic policy matters, including financial crises, economic security, job creation and market opening.

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In recent years, APEC has lost its way to a certain degree, due to differing priorities among its 21 members, escalating U.S.-China tensions, and the COVID-19 pandemic. But strong leadership is important to any organization and APEC has turned the corner this year with New Zealand at the helm.

Asia is the world’s fastest-growing economic region, but new challenges are emerging, including COVID-19 recovery, supply chain disruptions and China’s increasing role in setting rules and standards in a way that could undermine the attainment of a level playing field for all participants in the regional economy.

Without concerted effort by the United States to stay in the game, Americans risk being shut out, thereby taking jobs away from American workers and diminishing our competitive edge. 

Indeed, our allies and partners have been calling for the U.S. to take renewed action to reassert its economic leadership role in the region. Many would prefer for the United States to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership, now called CPTPP. But regardless of whether that becomes politically possible in the years ahead, chairing APEC in 2023 is an important step in establishing that the “United States is back” and ready to lead. 

Hosting APEC will allow Washington, along with others, to help shape the economic agenda for the region by prioritizing and advancing initiatives on climate change, inclusive growth and innovation. Moreover, it can help build support at home for continued economic engagement with the fastest-growing region of the world, through detailed interactions with senior Asian officials and stakeholders throughout the host year. Finally, it provides an important opportunity for the United States to showcase its intellectual and entrepreneurial core, attracting job-creating commercial opportunities. 

While 2023 may seem like a long way off, in many respects it is just around the corner. Planning needs to start now for the U.S. host year to be successful. As architects and implementers of  APEC 2011, the last time the United States hosted, we offer the following three suggestions as the Biden administration puts together its team for APEC 2023:

First, it is important to act fast to shape the 2023 agenda by starting work in 2022 to build support from other APEC economies. It is critical to triage and prioritize — selecting a few topics and producing meaningful and decisive outcomes on them. Initiatives can be successfully tied to the worker-oriented economic policies that the Biden administration has been championing — in such areas as climate and clean energy; pandemic and disaster preparedness; job creation and training for the 21st century; and digital inclusiveness.  One APEC theme in 2011 that resonated, and should be reaffirmed in 2023, was “Get Stuff Done,” displaying the kind of can-do leadership that the region welcomes from the United States.

Second, the U.S. team should select APEC venues across the nation that highlight U.S. strengths and diversity, while sending a message about our values. APEC is best known for its annual meeting of leaders, for which President Clinton chose Blake Island in Washington State in 1993 and President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaDemocrats make final plea for voting rights ahead of filibuster showdown Biden nominates Jane Hartley as ambassador to UK To boost economy and midterm outlook, Democrats must pass clean energy bill MORE selected Honolulu in 2011. This time around, the 2023 meeting may be an opportune time for Biden to select a city in the nation’s heartland to host his fellow heads of government. By doing so, he can underscore his foreign policy for the middle class and show how strengthening ties with the Asia-Pacific region can help improve the lives of all U.S. citizens.

In addition, each APEC year entails many other meetings of Cabinet ministers and senior officials, allowing the team to hold sessions in various corners of the United States. This approach can also help Washington explain exactly how economic engagement features as a central part of the sustained U.S. presence in Asia.

Third, the United States has an opportunity to broaden stakeholder engagement in 2023 to make APEC’s agenda more reflective of 21st-century society and changes in international economic policy. Over the years, APEC has done a good job of including members of the Asia-Pacific business community in its work. These channels should continue. However, now is a good time to expand APEC’s outreach to labor groups, civil society and the next generation of leaders in all walks of society. This could be accomplished by proposing new institutional mechanisms, or by holding a series of inclusion-focused events throughout the year. 

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APEC 2023 provides an important avenue for the United States to demonstrate to the region that we are back, engaged and ready to lead. Equally important, the U.S. host year can also go a long way toward showing Americans why Asia matters for the United States, helping to reinforce a constituency for strong and sustained U.S. engagement in this dynamic region.  

Wendy Cutler is vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute.  

Kurt Tong is a partner at  The Asia Group.

Tong and Cutler played senior roles at the U.S. State Department and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative when the United States last hosted APEC in 2011.