Forging the way forward

Danial Norjidi

The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Business Advisory Council’s (ABAC) first meeting for 2021 took place virtually on February 9, bringing together business leaders from 21 Asia-Pacific economies.

According to the ABAC press release, the business leaders discussed how to work together to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and rebuild the region’s economies.

This meeting opened with an address from New Zealand Prime Minister cum APEC 2021 Chair Jacinda Ardern, saying, “APEC economies need the voice of business. As well as generating ideas, your advice is key to APEC creating conditions that drive economic growth and create jobs in our region.

“There is no doubt what our major challenge is this year – Fighting the pandemic and recovering our economies. The challenge for all of us is to make the right choices to enable a rapid, sustainable and inclusive recovery.

“If we are to succeed, we must invest in infrastructure and support businesses to thrive, we need to invest in our people to get into meaningful work, we need to ensure we are building a green recovery by making our economy sustainable and ensuring that all sectors of our community, women, small businesses, and indigenous communities are included.”

Ardern highlighted the importance for APEC economies to redouble their commitment to open markets.

“Trade and investment has been the long-term engine of growth and prosperity in our region. As we respond to our current challenges we must keep our markets open, keep our trade flowing as engines for business to grow and for jobs to be created.

“As government and business leaders together, we must ensure that the ideas APEC stands for, ideas like openness, innovation, dynamism, sustainability and inclusion are all applied effectively to today’s challenges,” she said.

“As Chair of APEC 2021, I look forward to working with ABAC this year to join together to reignite growth and plan for a sustainable economic recovery, work together to work for the collective good and grow together to foster prosperity and well-being that is sustainable and inclusive,” added the prime minister.

ABAC was created by APEC leaders in 1995 to be the primary voice of business in APEC, with each economy having three members. The ABAC meets four times a year in preparation for the presentation of their recommendations to the leaders.

Commenting after the first meeting for this year, ABAC Chair Rachel Taulelei said, “We are living through the crisis of a century and strength comes from our determination to work together.

“Overcoming the current adversity, whether restoring public health, re-opening borders, securing economic recovery or achieving more equitable communities, demands constructive, creative and above all collaborative approaches.

“The need for this kind of coordinated thinking has been brought home very vividly by the spectre of vaccine export restrictions; it remains true, as it has been since the beginning of this crisis, that we all remain vulnerable if any of us remains vulnerable,” Taulelei warned.

The ABAC Chair highlighted that their focus this year in ABAC is on people, place and prosperity. “These three elements are all essential to creating the kind of societies we want to live in.

“Inclusion for all people is our North Star – so we will be working on how to ensure access for all to COVID vaccinations, essential goods and food supplies; how small businesses can operate on a level playing field; and how to empower women and indigenous populations for success.

“Place is about safeguarding our planet. We aspire to lead on climate change. We will be looking for ways to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy, through boosting renewable energy, encouraging innovation and by weaning ourselves off environmentally-harmful subsidies.

“And achieving a prosperous region, especially after the body-blows of 2020, demands that most fundamental of APEC goals – free and open markets. That means building a seamless Free Trade Area (FTA) of the Asia-Pacific, and championing the World Trade Organization, including initiatives to keep supply chains functioning and trade flowing as well as the re-opening of borders and resumption of travel that will revive the region’s economic growth,” she said.

Underscoring all of this is the digital economy, the ABAC Chair said, noting that digital tools are fundamental to resilience, sustainability and inclusion.

Taulelei added that emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence can unleash even greater opportunities, but also highlighted the need for a trusted, interoperable enabling environment to realise that potential.

She noted that the APEC Putrajaya Vision, agreed by APEC Leaders late last year, provided an imperative to act.

“Despite – or perhaps because of, the pandemic – we have the highest possible ambitions for this year. We cannot emerge unchanged from COVID; but nor should we want to. The vision calls for an open, dynamic, resilient and peaceful Asia-Pacific community by 2040. The road to get there will not be easy. But the business of business is solving problems – and ABAC is ready and eager for the challenge,” the ABAC Chair said.