Half full or half empty? What an APEC summit reveals about the EU

Frauke Austermann |

Always a question of perception.

Always a question of perception.

Food for thought in China-Europe relations is again as abundant as ever. ‘Hang on’, one might be inclined to intervene, ‘it’s been the APEC-summit this week – since when is Europe either Asian or close to the Pacific?’ Moreover, the Asian style dress code (aka “silly shirts”) for the APEC family picture gives room for interpretation of the symbolic end of European/Western cultural dominance in the world – despite the fact that it was actually Bill Clinton who started it in 1993, when he dressed the leaders in leather bombardier jackets.

This year, however, the Chinese APEC-shirt designer implicitly seems to predict the return of Western dominance – or at least of Hollywood. After all, the resemblance of Xi, Obama, Putin and the other leaders with the well-known Star Trek characters was undeniable. Jean-Claude Juncker, Federica Mogherini and their colleagues must have been relieved not to be forced to dress up as Captain Kirk or Commander Spock look-alikes. On a more serious note, the APEC summit still is an excellent opportunity to compare two very different regional integration efforts:

  • To start with, there are commonalities: both the EU and APEC promote free trade. But they are also eager to improve standards of living, education, and foster shared interest
  • On the other hand, there are significant differences: the EU is in a much better position to actually achieve something. APEC, which calls itself an ‘economic forum’ is a purely intergovernmental organisation in the classical sense. There is only one really meaningful meeting of Heads of State and Government at APEC in the course of a year, officially called the ‘Economic Leaders Meeting’. Meanwhile, EU leaders constantly meet; the EU has its own ‘government’ (the Commission), a Parliament and even a Court of Justice whereas APEC has merely established a Secretariat in Singapore and some theme-based committees without real decision-making power.
  • Although security talks do play a role during side meetings and chats over coffee (or tea) at the annual summit, APEC focuses on the economy only: Trade & Investment Liberalisation, Business Facilitation, Economic & Technical Cooperation are on the agenda. Here the EU is much more ‘advanced’, such as with an own Common Foreign and Security Policy.
  • It should nonetheless not be forgotten that APEC’s choice to keep a low profile on politics is in itself a highly political decision: APEC prefers speaking of ‘member economies’ rather than ‘member states’ – after all, APEC also includes Taiwan, pardon, ‘Chinese Taipei’ and Hong Kong.
  • APEC was founded in 1989 in reaction to increasing regionalisation trends on the globe. Its history is thus much shorter than that of the EU. It also does not have a fundamental reason of being like the will for sustainable peace that set the EU on track in the first place.
  • True, just like European integration was considered a means to both contain and integrate Western Germany after WWII (and avoid German dominance after reunification), APEC also had as a purpose to contain economic dominance of Japan.
  • Currently at 21 members, APEC represents 40% of the world’s population. With its 28 member states the EU exceeds APEC in terms of members, but today only represents 7% of the world’s population. Nonetheless, as the world’s biggest trading bloc, it is an ‘economic giant’.
  • When it comes to its geographic scope, APEC encounters similar problems as the EU (which is struggling with the unclear definition of ‘Europe’). India for instance would like to join APEC but since it does not border to the Pacific, APEC so far refused Indian membership. Taking a closer look, APEC (mis-)uses seemingly objective criteria like geography to disguise more political motivations.

This brief comparison shows that the differences between APEC and the EU clearly outweigh the commonalities. It also mitigates the endless criticism of the EU’s alleged incapacity of being a proper actor in global politics that, famously, ‘does not speak with one voice’. The look from outside tells a different story. As China’s Global Times writes, for instance:

‘[T]he EU and APEC differ because the first endeavours to be an active political actor in the international arena while the second remains an initiative of economic regionalism with an impressive geographical reach. The EU has a clear political identity, a contrast to APEC which is barely interested in dealing with security issues. In spite of problems of cohesion within the EU, its main ambition is to speak with one voice on the global stage and become a reliable international power. APEC has been never keen on serving such a goal.’

So as always, it’s a question of the glass being half-full or half-empty. Or as French master diplomat Talleyrand puts it: ‘When I examine myself, I am worried. When I compare myself, I am reassured.’


This text was simultaneously posted on the blog of the EU-Asia Institute
and on Frauke’s 
blogactiv.eu page.