Diverging views on Russia’s war in Ukraine are making it hard for the 21 economies of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum to agree on a joint communiqué ahead of next week’s meeting of leaders and senior officials in Bangkok, Thailand.
“The primary sticking point for this year in APEC that’s been very challenging” has been Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “and the situation that’s created across the region, particularly on the economic impact,” such as the food and energy crisis, said the U.S. State Department’s senior official for APEC, Matt Murray, in an interview with VOA on Tuesday.
He said differing views of the war have prevented the group from agreeing on a joint statement about its economic impact during several ministerial meetings this year. “There are certainly economies in APEC who don’t feel as comfortable with including that language in statements,” he added, while refusing to rule out a last-minute agreement next week.
Restoring travel and tourism in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic is one of the priorities of this year’s APEC meetings. But not all APEC members are lifting COVID-19 restrictions. For example, China recently said it will stay the course on coronavirus restrictions and continue its strict “zero-COVID” policy that imposes mandatory quarantines.
“This is one of those areas where we need to have more discussions,” Murray said, but “that doesn’t mean that APEC is going to dictate to any economy what it should or shouldn’t do when it comes to reopening following the pandemic.”
The following are excerpts from the sit-down interview. They have been edited for brevity and clarity.
VOA: This year’s APEC leaders’ summit is the first in-person meeting after 2018, due to the pandemic. Can you unpack for us some of the deliverables, such as restoring travel and tourism, in the aftermath of COVID-19 pandemic.
Murray: Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum hasn’t been able to have its leaders’ week since 2018. And a lot of that has been due to the COVID pandemic the last two years. So there’s a lot of excitement from both government officials and the 21 member economies, but also a lot of private sector representatives who are going to be attending the APEC CEO summit, to be able to get back to business as usual in APEC, and to be able to get back to an in-person APEC. APEC is 21 economies that make up 47% of global trade. And so it’s a really important organization for the United States to be able to engage.
There are a few priorities this year. Thailand has really been focused on sustainability, and they have an initiative called the bio circular green economy, which they want to try to promote across APEC.
The restoration of travel and tourism is also very important. And Thailand has shown some really strong leadership in this area. By setting up a safe passage task force during its APEC host year, which has created a lot of opportunities for economies to collaborate on a whole range of different initiatives, including some vaccine interoperability certificates, also some information sharing, bringing health experts together from around the region to talk about how we can make sure to return to safe travel and tourism, which has been a really tremendous contribution that Thailand has made this year.
VOA: Not all of the 21 APEC economies lifted their restrictions. For example, China still maintains the “zero-COVID” policy, and a 10-day quarantine for inbound travelers. Do you see China soon making COVID policy changes, and shortening the period of mandatory quarantine?
Murray: Every economy has instituted its own measures to try to control the spread of the virus. And so I think one of the important contributions APEC has made and that Thailand has been able to make under its host leadership is by starting some of these conversations.
That doesn’t mean that APEC is going to dictate to any economy what it should or shouldn’t do when it comes to reopening following the pandemic. But it does demonstrate the importance that APEC as an organization places upon being able to put measures in place and agree on some measures that help facilitate this sort of economic recovery that we all are hoping to promote post COVID.
VOA: Are an individual economy’s rigid COVID restrictions becoming a problem to APEC’s efforts to restore post-pandemic tourism?
Murray: This is one of those areas where we need to have more discussions and that’s why multilateral organizations like APEC are so important. That’s why having a place and a platform where we can engage on the whole range of challenges we face on economic issues becomes important.
VOA: Can you talk about reshoring, about American companies relocating from mainland China? Why is it important to the government? Is this decoupling?
Murray: I don’t think that there’s a message as we’ve heard from the president, as we’ve heard from the secretary and others, there’s not a message that there should be decoupling from China. It’s more about how can we make sure that our supply chains are more resilient. How can we make sure that they’re less dependent on any one place, and certainly we know that U.S. companies also have their own considerations when it comes to their investments in China versus their investments in other parts of the region.
VOA: There has been no joint statement even after several APEC ministerial meetings. What are the sticking points? How likely will there be a communique, or joint statement, after the APEC Leaders’ Summit?
Murray: The primary sticking point for this year’s APEC that’s been very challenging, certainly, and a lot of the ministerial meetings has been Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the situation that’s created across the region, particularly on the economic impact.
Whether you’re talking about food security, whether you’re talking about prices, whether you’re talking about energy issues, et cetera, those are all substantive impacts that have derived from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. So that’s an issue where we’ve been talking about that in the APEC context. There are certainly economies in APEC who don’t feel as comfortable with including that language in statements. That’s what we’ve seen happen so far with some of the ministerial statements earlier this year.
That said, I don’t want to prejudge what could happen over the next week as we head into APEC Leaders’ Week.
VOA: U.S. President Joe Biden is not attending the APEC Leaders’ Summit due to a family event. How do you address some of the sharp criticism that this is a blow to the Thai government, and he’s giving Chinese President Xi Jinping a win?
Murray: From our perspective on the APEC team, we’re really excited that Vice President Kamala Harris will be representing the United States at the APEC Leaders’ Meeting. It was Vice President Harris who, in August of 2021 on a trip to the region, announced the United States interest in hosting APEC in 2023. She’s also traveled back to the region recently. Her representation from the White House does demonstrate a really high-level commitment from the United States to APEC.
VOA: APEC is seen as an economic forum. What is the U.S. message to China, regarding potential one-on-one, bilateral, or pull-aside meetings between representatives from the U.S. and Taiwan?
Murray: We’re still developing the schedule for the various bilateral meetings that will happen during the week, so I don’t have any specific comments on that. The way we look at APEC (as an organization that has) 21 member economies, we treat certainly every economy equally, and we want to engage with every economy.
VOA: The United States and China are the world’s two largest economies. Are open lines of communication between them conducive to regional stability?
Murray: We don’t agree on everything certainly, but we do want to have as constructive a relationship as possible. And, you know, I think that obviously as the two, the world’s two largest economies, we want to continue to have that sort of touch point through APEC.