An Interview with APEC Executive Director Michael Tay

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An Interview with APEC Executive Director Michael Tay

The Diplomat spoke recently with APEC Executive Director Michael Tay about the key economic challenges facing the region, next month’s leaders’ summit, and claims that international summits are simply talking shops.

The theme for APEC this year is ‘Sustaining Growth, Connecting the Region.’ What do you have in mind when talking about connecting the region and what would you like to see being done?

Ambassador Tay: There is a pervasive fallacy that economies are like fighters–that an economy only becomes stronger by beating down the others and establishing itself as ‘the winner.’ But in fact, the exact opposite is true. As one economy becomes stronger, so do its partners.When an economy grows, it becomes more competitive. Both businesses and consumers begin to look outward, toward the goods and services available elsewhere, and the opportunities available to those other economies expand. In the worst of times, free trade makes economies more resilient. Developed economies protect themselves by diversifying their interests and developing economies attract foreign investment. For businesses, it means greater competition and greater opportunity and for consumers, it means greater choice and lower cost. It’s a win-win situation and that’s what we mean when we talk about connecting the region and sustaining growth. Ideally, we’d like to see a region where the idea of international business is not cumbersome–where it’s as easy for small companies as it is for multi-national companies. The idea is to increase wealth for everyone. This is why APEC is supportive of the World Trade Organisation negotiations and continues to explore the possibility of a regional free trade area.

Looking at the region as a whole, how well would you say it has weathered the global recession, and are there any countries or approaches that you would point to as a model for the region?

Ambassador Tay: Last year, APEC Leaders determined to overcome the crisis in 18 months which, at the time, was considered extremely optimistic. But as we prepare for this year’s meeting, we are fulfilling that unlikely prophecy, discussing recovery and growth, experiencing a pendulum swing from West to East and witnessing the rise of emerging global economic powers. In that respect, one could argue that, as a region, the Asia-Pacific has weathered the storm quite gracefully.

But every economy has been affected. The recession drew attention to some very major weaknesses and so we must consider this an opportunity to address them. One of the most important examples is the disparity between rich and poor. When APEC Trade Ministers met at the beginning of the year, it was obvious that while the recession had been difficult for many, it had been especially detrimental to the poor. It’s time for the benefits and opportunities afforded by globalisation to be distributed more equitably. And, by extension, as we patch up these chinks in the armour, APEC – as a region – will be stronger and more resilient to future crisis.

This month saw the SME Ministerial Meeting. Small and medium enterprises make up a massive part of the region’s economy, accounting for about 90 percent of the business there. What were the key issues at this meeting and what has APEC been able to do to help see such businesses through the global downturn?

Ambassador Tay: APEC has long recognised the importance of assisting SMEs. In recent years, member economies have made a concerted effort to remove regulatory barriers to trade. Essentially, this means reducing the time, cost and inconvenience of operating businesses across borders so that international business is not the exclusive domain of multi-national corporations. In the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business report, APEC economies account for six of the ten easiest places to do business in the world so we know we’re doing well in that respect.

Last year, leaders met as the world began to experience the breadth and depth of the economic recession. Knowing the challenges that awaited businesses at every level, they specifically instructed member economies to assist SMEs by resisting protectionist measures–which are harmful at every level but can put an SME out of business altogether. Ministers responsible for trade met in July this year, as spokespeople throughout the globe began to speak of ‘recovery’ and future growth. In discussing these concepts, there was overwhelming consensus among the Ministers that growth strategies need to be inclusive and sustainable and this is where we stand at present. APEC has always been founded on the premise that free and open markets are inextricable to a healthy economy and that, where the conditions are conducive, people and businesses will thrive. The SME Ministerial Meeting has discussed ways to make markets more accessible to businesses of every size and specific areas to be shaped by future policies–things like the ability of financing and the sustainability of business practices.

What do you think are the prospects for enlargement of APEC? Would admitting more countries make it difficult to keep the agenda focussed?

Ambassador Tay:  A wider membership wouldn’t necessarily make it more difficult to remain focussed, but one should anticipate that gaining consensus might take more time. Having come to the close of a moratorium on new membership, the possibility of admitting new members will be examined in Japan next year. Quite a few economies have already expressed their interest in joining APEC and several of them have been granted guest status at some of APEC’s sectoral meetings–including India, for example.

Over the next months or so are a series of high-level meetings, culminating in the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in the middle of November. What would you say in response to criticism that summits such as these are essentially just talking shops?

Ambassador Tay: I’d respond by asking how is it conceivable that any significant movement should be made without talking first?To garner genuine commitment from 21 economies and to devise plans of action to which both developed and developing members can adhere, demands extensive discussion. There is no “easy way”. There’s no short cut. APEC gets 21 of the world’s most influential leaders sitting down in a room, side-by-side. That doesn’t happen every day. So doesn’t it make sense that they should be talking – very frankly – about the world’s most pressing issues?