APEC is best known for the annual parade of flowery shirts and dresses worn by Leaders when they meet for their annual Summit. Business people may also know the APEC Business Travel Card, which provides visa free access to most of the organisation's 21 members. APEC is the region's pre-eminent forum for economic co-operation. APEC's value ranges from the largely ceremonial to the thoroughly practical.
This week's meeting of the APEC Business Advisory Council (ABAC) falls more into the second category. ABAC is made up of three senior business leaders from each "economy" appointed by the Government. Tony Nowell, Maxine Simmons and Wayne Boyd have all been appointed by Prime Minister John Key. ABAC members meet four times a year to develop recommendations which are presented directly to Leaders in a face to face meeting at the end of the year.
Why does this matter? Because APEC's work in accelerating business growth needs to be grounded in business sense. APEC is unusual in that it is a voluntary and non-binding forum. It is not a negotiating body like the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Economies will implement APEC's recommendations only if they perceive there to be a benefit in doing so. ABAC therefore plays a key role in keeping governments honest - honest to the lofty objectives they sign up to - such as the goal of free and open trade and investment in the region by 2020 - and honest in terms of evaluating the progress made.
This year APEC is being chaired by China and it's something of a feather in New Zealand's cap to host this first meeting in the Year of the Horse. As well as the 250 ABAC delegates, a sizeable Chinese delegation is coming to New Zealand to examine the prospects for even closer trade and investment links. With the progress being made under our groundbreaking FTA and the need to strengthen further New Zealand's value proposition in China, this visit becomes a key opportunity to demonstrate New Zealand expertise and capabilities.
The core ABAC agenda covers a wide range of business issues. Finding ways to expand trade and investment is a key concern but so are ensuring the region's financial health, empowering women's entrepreneurship, incentivizing SME growth, fostering innovation, addressing food and energy security, building greater connectivity between economies. A dialogue with APEC senior officials will help identify the priorities for government and business collaboration this year. A range of side events will ensure the ABAC delegates get to meet New Zealand counterparts in a number of sectors.
The future of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is not a matter for negotiation at this business-focused meeting, but TPP will doubtless figure largely in the discussion. That's because TPP is one of the pathways to the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP), a grand vision for a more seamless economic space in the region. The other pathways will also feature - the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which is just beginning to gain momentum in Asia, and the Pacific Alliance, a major new grouping of Latin American economies. A chief concern is to find ways of developing coherence between these overlapping and potentially confusing instruments.
Business develops best when the rules are clear and procedures are streamlined. Uncertainty kills business. So at this time when the Asia Pacific region is consolidating its economic recovery, the need for clear signals and effective business leadership is critical. A number of New Zealand businesses led by BusinessNZ have joined with the New Zealand Government to bring the ABAC event to New Zealand. It will be important that New Zealand's view of the world, and what we see as needing to be done to expand growth, are brought to the attention of those present.
New Zealand last hosted the APEC Summit in 1999. It's sometimes difficult to evaluate the value for money of hosting events such as these. Influence is a hard commodity to measure but in a highly competitive world where smaller nations have a hard job getting seen and heard these events can and do deliver value.
There will be no flowery shirts and dresses given away at the ABAC meeting. Ideas, networks and plans for future growth will be the main items of exchange. We can expect a strong message to be sent about the importance of open markets. APEC is far from perfect but it is the glue that holds the region together. If it didn't exist, we'd have to invent it.
Stephen Jacobi is an Alternate Member of the APEC Business Advisory Council (ABAC) and Executive Director of the NZ International Business Forum.