Quezon City, Philippines – The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) project is both a defensive reaction to the deepening crisis of the world capitalist system and an effort to stabilize itself through a heightened market-driven regime. This was triggered by the 2008-2009 global economic meltdown that started in the US and spread throughout the global economic system. Led by the US and its major regional allies, Japan, Canada, South Korea, and Australia, the aim is to maintain and strengthen the dominance of major industrial market-based powers by expanding access to wider regional markets in order to maximize profits for their respective ruling classes and their home-based corporations.
APEC’s neoliberal thrusts are to intensify and expand state-sanctioned free-trade-oriented policies, finance-deregulation rules, privatization of essential services, labor contractualization, and the new scheme of public-private partnerships – all in line with the ongoing trend of corporate-led globalization. These are the core principles for which APEC stands for.
This US-led agenda for recovery and rebalancing is a triple-edged economic-political-military spearhead across the Asia Pacific region. Through the so-called ‘US Pivot’, Washington is amplifying its strategic shift towards the broader Asian sphere to exploit the area’s huge market potentials and its rich resources. At the same time, however, this leads the major industrial powers into direct economic competition and political rivalry with each other.
The theme formulated by the Philippine government for APEC 2015 is “Building Inclusive Economies, Building a Better World”. The Peoples’ Forum on APEC (PFA 2015), on the other hand, a broad coalition of civil society organizations and people’s movements, contends that such a theme is deceptive and is anchored on false promises.
The fact remains that, 26 years after APEC was conceived, little has changed across the Asia-Pacific region in terms of fundamental social structures. Despite high growth rates, social inequalities and vulnerabilities among the regions’ poor populations, especially in less developed societies, remain hallmarks of neoliberalism’s impact upon this vast territory.
Through the trade-finance mechanisms advanced by the likes of APEC, many significant social and economic gains have either been set aside or lost altogether. Major political advances won over the past by progressive mass movements, especially the international Left-led working class, have now officially been declared as irrelevant and labelled as potential threats to the universal growth and well-being of capitalist societies. Within this context, the APEC agenda has only managed to inflict immense socio-economic-political-ecological damage to the Asia-Pacific region’s societies, its peoples and the environment.
The crisis confronting the capitalist world reflects the irrationality of maintaining overcapacity and overproduction with shrinking markets. Deepening wealth and income inequalities have prevented the majority of working peoples from purchasing the goods produced by the system. To crawl out from this inherent contradiction, the US and its other imperialist cohorts are now endeavouring to create yet another regional market-oriented mechanism while angling to out-balance America’s top regional rival, China.
With APEC as a platform, Washington is aggressively pursuing its latest anti-stagnation concoction known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement as a new regional neoliberal project but excluding China. This is in line with Washington’s plan to strategically fuse and realign its so-called ‘Pivot to Asia’ foreign policy direction around a more deliberate economic framework. The strategy is to form an “arc of denial” to contain China’s ambitions of expanding its influence beyond its borders and providing an alternative to US and Western hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region.
The US remains the world’s primary super power. It is able to maintain the world balance to its advantage largely because of its combined capacities in the economic, political, military, socio-cultural, and technological aspects. Due to this distinct advantage, it is, for the moment, able to offset the countervailing forces represented by China and Russia.
PFA 2015 has identified seven areas where crucial spheres of Asia-Pacific peoples’ lives are adversely affected. These are the following:
1. Trade and Investments:
· APEC’s trade and investment agenda is about supporting and consolidating the corporate agenda and is represented by a broad range of trade/investment-related free trade area (FTA) initiatives such as the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership), and the FTAAP (Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific);
· These new generation FTAs go far beyond trade and constitute broader economic agreements that cover trade, investments, intellectual property rights, and regulatory coherence. Corporations are granted enormous powers to challenge and sue governments on public policies that regulate investments in order to promote and pursue certain social, environmental, health, and labor policies but which are deemed detrimental to corporate profits.
2. Fiscal Justice and Trade:
· There is a growing trend of “international investment rule-making” with nominally sovereign states surrendering their say over economic and trade issues to external arbitration. This goes hand in hand with developed countries increasingly forging “mega-regional agreements”
· The effects would be: (a) reduced state revenues due to the elimination of import and export taxes; (b) the erosion of national sovereignty and fiscal autonomy with states forced to seek international arbitration procedures linked to investor-initiated legal cases; and, (c) increase in government indebtedness to compensate for trade liberalization-related revenue losses.
3. Social Impacts and Dimensions on Development:
· The social crisis is worsened as the corporate-driven approach removes safeguards for the people and the environment;
· Workers, farmers, women, and consumers are marginalized and become mere shock-absorbers of economic structural adjustment programs;
· Labor is “casualized” while the urban and rural poor are forcibly evicted from their communities to make way for elite projects (e.g. special economic zones, property development, and resorts) which benefit only a few.
4. Food and Agriculture:
· Trade liberalization greatly affects indigenous-based subsistence agriculture by bankrupting small-scale indigenous farmers who are forced to produce high-input crops, as opposed to indigenous/organic crops;
· State support is drastically reduced in favor of privatization, domestic production is endangered, and landlessness worsens.
· Control by domestic and transnational corporations is expanded over food production, trade and distribution through public-private partnership arrangements, adoption of IPR on plant and agriculture investment incentives.
· Food and environmental safety are compromised with the commercialization of GMO crops.
· Increased exploitation of agriculture and natural resources including marine resources in favor of big agribusiness companies to the detriment of small farmers, municipal fishers and IPs dependent on these for their subsistence.
5. Climate, Renewable Energy and Environmental Justice:
· APEC 2015 is being held just two weeks before the 21st Paris Conference of Parties (COP21) December. Since the APEC includes countries that are the top Annex-1 Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emitters, the US being the world’s leading historical emitter, we need to see what their national responses during the APEC Summit;
· While the US and China are now both publicly committed to a reduction of their dirty energy-use, Southeast Asia is instead moving towards more dirty energy projects. The contradiction for the latter is that Southeast Asia remains one of the most vulnerable regions of the world in terms of food security and climate change disasters.
6. Democracy and Human Rights:
· Human rights does not figure in APEC’s scope of over forty (40) areas of concern. This glaringly major gap simply reflects the reality of a “Corporate Capture of States”;
· UN principles and resolutions have outlined the corporate responsibility to respect human rights and the urgent need for an“Elaboration of an international legally binding instrument on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights”.
· A “human rights respect-redress clause” must be embedded in all trade and investment agreements, including a mandatory Human Rights Impact Assessment (HRIA) in extractive industries.
7. Regional Peace and Security:
· Even as APEC’s official scope of focus is on economic and trade-related matters, a major issue of concern is the question of regional peace and security;
· The US ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy is aimed at directly countering China’s own expansionist plans and securing its own market access;
· The US is now aggressively expanding its military presence across and beyond the APEC region and continues to strengthen and enhance its regional security alliances with Japan, Australia and the Philippines through interoperability joint military exercises;
· These moves confirm that powerful countries are securing their own national economic interests by pursuing militarist options instead of exploring other ways of peaceful regional cooperation.
Asian peoples and their mass movements need to confront the corporate-led agenda and the continuing elite-capture of the economic policies and practices underpinning multilateral trade/investment agreements, such as the APEC. The response, therefore, is to form a broad global front of progressive peoples’ movements that would expose the disastrous effects of capitalist neoliberal strategies and challenge them at every opportunity. In many countries ravaged by policies and programs engendered by these strategies, mass movements have confronted their respective governments and international institutions and struggled for a reversal of the neoliberal agenda.
This is graphically illustrated by the “Battle of Seattle”, the “Occupy Movement”, global gatherings such as the annual “World Social Forum”, the peasant-based “Via Campesina”, parallel civil society forums at meetings of multilateral financial institutions (i.e. the WB, IMF, ADB, etc.) and regional free trade groups (ASEAN, APEC, etc.), among others. At the national level, we salute the gains of national movements in thwarting inroads of neo-liberal globalization – agrarian movements installing poor peasants in their lands, anti-mining movements, food sovereignty movements against privatization, etc.
On the electoral front, palpable is the capture of state power by leftwing socialist parties in most of Latin America and in Greece, and the ascendancy of radical left parties and leaders in Spain and the UK. In Asia, left parties have governed in Nepal, Timor Leste and in some Indian states while the recent landslide electoral victory of the NLD in Burma bodes well for democracy movements. Among scholars, academics and students, there is a growing trend of unorthodox approaches to economic theories and practices that reject the neoliberal approach. People-to-people networks across countries and regions have also been established on issues such as workers’ control, human rights, climate justice, women’s rights, LGBT concerns, peasant and indigenous peoples’ rights, and alternative education.
Such challenges to neoliberalism and corporate-led globalization need to be expanded and sustained. The crying need is to build, consolidate and strengthen broad platforms of resistance against the global economic paradigm that is being foisted on Asian societies and their peoples. The neoliberal capitalist system is not working; it needs to be overhauled and replaced with a humane and radical alternative. Let our voices be heard and our actions be decisive!