Pacific Trade Deals, Digital Commerce Push Lead APEC Agenda

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By Lien Hoang

A pair of Pacific regional trade deals and the digital economy will be high on the agenda at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Papua New Guinea Nov. 12-18.

Countries will also use the APEC Leaders Week to urge the U.S. and China to resolve their trade war, said APEC Secretariat Executive Director Alan Bollard in Singapore.

He added that 11 countries in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership will hold talks on the APEC sidelines. All members of the trade pact, redubbed the TPP-11 after the U.S. withdrew in 2017, are also APEC members. They will discuss next steps now that enough countries have ratified the TPP-11, as well as how to bring in “new entrants,” Bollard said.

Singapore, a TPP-11 nation, said others can’t join before the trade accord takes effect Dec. 30. Other APEC economies interested in joining include South Korea, Thailand, and Indonesia.

“Singapore welcomes like-minded parties who are willing and able to meet the high standards of the agreement, after it has entered into force,” a Singaporean trade ministry spokesman told Bloomberg Law.

The U.S. will also get an earful about the TPP-11 at the gathering in Port Moresby. Cargill, the biggest privately-held U.S. company, said it will attend meetings where U.S. business representatives will huddle with officials from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the State Department.

“We will certainly be bringing up that we, in the American agriculture and food business, support rejoining TPP,” Cargill Asia Pacific Vice President of Corporate Affairs Bruce Blakeman said by phone, referring to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Other companies expected to send speakers to the summit include UPS, ExxonMobil, and Johnson & Johnson.

U.S., China Rivalry

President Trump won’t attend. Instead he will send Vice President Mike Pence, who will have bilateral meetings with prime ministers from India, Australia, and Papua New Guinea.

Pence is expected to announce infrastructure and other loans for Asia-Pacific nations through the U.S. government’s Overseas Private Investment Corp. While Pence uses the APEC event to pitch U.S. funding, Chinese President Xi Jinping will pitch the Belt and Road Initiative, which covers roughly half of the APEC bloc.

Digital Economy, Privacy

As APEC countries try to avoid flak from the U.S.-China tariff war, officials say an antidote to protectionism is to focus on “inclusive trade” in the internet age. That means preparing small businesses, women, and minorities, such as through digital skills workshops, so the new economy leaves fewer people behind and resenting trade.

APEC committees will submit reports for presidents and prime ministers to consider at the summit on digital skills and data privacy. Bollard said officials will push more nations to adopt the APEC cross-border privacy rules that allow companies to send data between countries. The U.S., Japan, and South Korea are on board, Singapore recently joined, Australia applied, and Canada and Mexico are considering it.

“These are rules for the 21st century,” said Eduardo Pedrosa, secretary general of the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council, an APEC think tank.

The report on digital skills will suggest including more people in the tech-driven economy by encouraging employers to work with government to identify skills shortages; publishing a guidebook of digital skills definitions; and workshops on developing focused school curricula.

Other discussion items include expanding connectivity, such as a planned internet cable between Australia and Papua New Guinea; pushing governments to put more customs steps online; and hosting a contest for smartphone apps to help small businesses.

Trade Deals

APEC members will have side talks on another trade deal, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), said Deny Kurnia, director of international trade cooperation at Indonesia’s trade ministry. All members except India are in the APEC zone, including China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. They reportedly aim to conclude RCEP, which excludes the U.S., by 2019.

“RCEP would be a stick in the eye to [President] Trump,” said David Dodwell, who has attended APEC summits for two decades and is executive director of the think tank Hong Kong-APEC Trade Policy Group.

Both RCEP and the TPP-11 are precursors to a future APEC-wide trade agreement, the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific, said Firdaos Rosli, a former APEC official at Malaysia’s trade ministry.

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