Around 3,000 delegates from across the Asia-Pacific region recently concluded a month-long summit at Seattle’s new convention center focused on defining the future of trans-Pacific trade and economic growth. Regular protests were held throughout the gathering, as its meetings were closed to most Seattleites.
Attendees at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, a year-long process hosted by the United States this year, discussed trends in the global economy, food security, emergency management, health care, science, technology, energy and the role of women in commerce. The government ministers, trade representatives, bureaucrats and corporate lobbyists kept most discussions behind closed doors, galvanizing local activists and organizers who oppose APEC’s neoliberal agenda.
“It’s like a very expensive, month-long schmooze fest between public and private officials from all these different member economies,” said International Women’s Alliance U.S. coordinator Katie Comfort, who helped organize some of the Seattle protests against APEC. “It’s a big deal that corporations have that level of access to global leaders for a month.”
APEC, which includes 19 countries and the non-U.N. recognized regions of Hong Kong and Taiwan, does not produce legally binding agreements; it instead aims to set aspirational goals about the future economy in areas such as increasing growth, promoting gender equity and transitioning to renewable energy. Another journalist who attended some of the APEC meetings described the summit to me as almost a glorified think tank, where delegates mingle and talk about policy.
Close to 200 meetings and events were held alongside the summit. For example, Gov. Jay Inslee spoke about the transition to clean energy at a banquet in the Chihuly Garden of Glass, and some delegates participated in tours of wineries in Woodinville and the University of Washington’s new population health building.
Despite the lack of hard commitments, insiders say the forums lay the groundwork for future binding agreements negotiated outside of APEC.
“For any trade agreement, APEC is really where the discussions get started,” explained Alex Parle, the executive vice president of the Seattle-based corporate advocacy group National Center for APEC, at a July 20 webinar.
“So for much of the mega trade agreements you’ve seen develop in the region, the TPP [Trans Pacific Partnership] or RCEP [Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership], some of the other ones, [APEC] is really where it started.”
So what did this conference mean for Seattle and the world? Here are five takeaways from my coverage of the Seattle APEC meetings and protests against them.
How the powerful view the economy
One of the most useful things to come out of the Seattle APEC summit was a glimpse into the way the rich and powerful see the economy, or at least what they tell themselves about it.
In platitude-filled remarks at the Aug. 3 Food Security’s Ministers Meeting, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack emphasized the importance of increasing productivity in the country’s agriculture sector and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Vilsack and other speakers touted the United States’ generous subsidies to producers while also calling for reducing barriers to trade such as tariffs.
Tariffs are essentially taxes on imported goods. Over the last 50 years, countries around the world have shifted toward tariff reductions in an effort to stimulate more trade. International organizations like the World Trade Organization (WTO) were founded to help advance these multilateral efforts. This has increased the availability of goods in the Global North, resulting in cheaper prices for consumers as factories shift overseas.
But for sectors like agriculture, which cannot survive alone in the free market, rich countries have introduced heavy subsidies to maintain food production. However, poor countries with limited national budgets are unable to afford these subsidies, leading multinational corporations to buy out small farmers. Maintaining higher tariffs on foreign agricultural goods might allow these countries to preserve these producers’ livelihoods.
In her keynote remarks at the Aug. 3 food security meeting, former U.N. World Food Programme Executive Director Ertharin Cousin claimed food market liberalization eliminated famines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Countries abided by and supported their WTO obligations during COVID, and as a result we had no famines, and babies around the world had access to the food they need,” Cousin said.
According to the World Health Organization, as many as 828 million people worldwide were affected by hunger in 2021, an increase of nearly 150 million since the start of the pandemic. This lack of progress is mirrored on the domestic level, with roughly 10.2% of American households facing food insecurity in 2021 — almost identical to the proportion of households who experienced food insecurity in 2001.
Both meetings I observed revealed this dissonance between optimistic rhetoric and the concrete realities of stagnating or worsening conditions. APEC presenters largely prioritized presenting an idealistic worldview rather than one rooted in material analysis. When figures were cited, they nearly always were accompanied by spin; for example, during discussions of gender equality, speakers framed the social issue in terms of its potential financial benefit.
Momentum grows for progressive movements
The APEC meetings — or rather activists’ response to them — garnered significant momentum for progressives across the Pacific Northwest. The coalition Pacific Northwest People Over Profit (PNW-POP) gathered about 500 people for educational workshops and a protest march during the onset of the Seattle APEC summit. PNW-POP followed up this initial protest with four more actions focused on health care, environmental justice, corporate salmon and women’s equality.
Protest coordinator Comfort said these actions re-energized community members and spread awareness about the connection between global trade and local struggles for justice.
“The level at which we were able to actually confront [APEC] ... really gave me a lot of hope for what we’re able to build in this country moving forward in terms of an anti-imperialist movement, a pro-worker movement and a movement that does boldly confront the people who are excluding us the most,” Comfort said. “To see people really take that on who weren’t necessarily organized, who weren’t previously in organizations, and to see the impact that had on average people was super dope.”
A common message of these protests was the inability of neoliberal approaches to economic policy to solve social injustices caused in part by neoliberal capitalism.
“I think there are people who genuinely think that bodies like APEC, the U.N., the U.S. government could impact and positively influence women’s position in society, and there definitely have been steps taken,” Comfort said. “Like laws protecting women — things like that are not a step in the wrong direction — it’s just not a complete step. That being said, APEC’s approach to how to solve women’s issues is taking the cause of what women are facing and being like, ‘We’ll fix it with this,’ right? It’d be fighting fire with fire.”
Whether for environmental regulations, labor protections, women’s liberation or online privacy, activists called for the creation of an alternative approach to trade that prioritizes the most marginalized. PNW-POP organizers said that the Seattle APEC protests built momentum for the next wave of activism in November, when APEC heads of state will gather in San Francisco.
Corporate capture and a lack of transparency
One of the most striking aspects of the Seattle APEC summit was an overall lack of transparency and even an implicit disdain for the media by event organizers. Members of the press were required to register in advance to attend meetings, and even then only a very limited number of the events were open to the press. Journalists were kept in a sort of pen in the back of the room for opening remarks, then media handlers quickly escorted us out.
Summit organizers offered few interviews, and media access as a whole was extremely limited outside of official remarks. Members of the public were not allowed in at all unless they were event staff or volunteers. It appeared that the mildly powerful people in attendance did not appreciate a watchful gaze over their “schmooze fest.”
One group that was in plentiful attendance were representatives from corporations and business organizations. Having sponsored much of the summit, guests from Seattle-area corporations like Microsoft and Amazon were welcomed at many of the APEC meetings. They were joined by a constellation of local politicos, think tank heads, chamber of commerce leaders and other professional-managerial class people, all sporting slick formal attire.
Much of the heavy lifting for the Seattle APEC meetings came from the Private Sector Host Committee, a group representing nearly 20 large American corporations. It did not appear to cross the minds of the organizers that these businesses could have undue influence on or present a conflict of interest for policymakers.
For Comfort, this corporate involvement encapsulates the neoliberal approach to public-private partnerships.
“It used to be the public sector, governments, being like: ‘Here’s what we want to see for trade based on ideally, what our constituents have said, what would benefit them,’ and then the private sector would have seats at the table,” Comfort said. “And now it’s almost flipped, where it’s like the private sector being: ‘Here’s what we need, and what we’re negotiating with other governments,’ and then they open up a few seats for the public sector here in the U.S.”
While the private sector had significant access to many of the key meetings held during the Seattle APEC summit, non-profit organizations and labor unions had virtually no institutional presence.
“On an ad hoc basis, there are representatives from civil society organizations or non-business [non-governmental organizations] that will attend some of the APEC meetings and speak or observe; that’s not regularized though,” Parle said.
Parle did note that there will be a multi-stakeholder event including some civil society representatives in San Francisco ahead of the heads of state summit.
Despite some talk by the Biden administration of prioritizing blue-collar workers or acknowledgments from a few of the delegates of the rightful Indigenous stewards of Seattle, it was pretty telling how narrow of a demographic was represented in these meetings, which are supposed to be on behalf of 3 billion people and nearly 60% of the global economy.
Geopolitical tensions and Biden's charm offensive
When President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, he promised a more proactive and less erratic foreign policy than his predecessor. In particular, he took a harder line against Russia while maintaining Trump’s cold approach toward China.
These tensions also played out in the Seattle APEC meetings. After the U.S. barred Hong Kong’s Chief Executive John Lee — who is seen as an ally to Chinese President Xi Jinping — from attending the November San Francisco summit, China only sent very low-level officials to the APEC meetings. The U.S. also denied ambassador visas to Russian trade officials traveling to Seattle, sparking accusations that it weaponized its host status against the APEC member.
The United States’ disparagement of its rivals was coupled by a warm reception to other APEC member economies. The country has tried to fully leverage its 2023 host year, holding four separate rounds of meetings in Hawaii, Detroit, Seattle and San Francisco. The host committee and Seattle government officials took special care to arrange fancy catering, organize site visits and show the Seattle region in the best possible light.
According to Parle, APEC was an opportunity for the U.S. to cultivate a more positive image and overcome its reputation for military intervention in the region.
“We have a strong security profile in the Asia-Pacific, but our economic profile is not that great, especially after we pulled out of TPP,” he said. “So really this is a way to complement some of the other efforts that the administration put forward in the form of Indo-Pacific strategy and of course, the Indo-Pacific Economy Framework [IPEF]. So APEC is just another part of that that can really demonstrate that the U.S. is engaged. … You can set the agenda for the year, the areas of focus.”
The groundwork for IPEF has been laid
Running parallel to the 2023 APEC summits has been a series of negotiations around the IPEF, which was announced in May of last year. The proposed regional trade pact would encompass the U.S., India and 12 other nations, many of which are APEC member economies. The economic bloc is an attempt by the Biden administration to to rival and contain China in the region.
IPEF is a more limited pact than its predecessor, the TPP — which former President Trump effectively killed. It excludes certain issues, such as tariffs, and allows countries to opt in or out of its four pillars. Some of IPEF’s main goals include establishing standards around digital trade and harmonizing regulations among the 14 member countries. The limited nature of the deal could also enable IPEF to come into effect without congressional approval, saving the president a potentially costly domestic political battle.
A fifth round of IPEF talks is scheduled for mid-September in Bangkok, with hopes of finalizing the text ahead of the November APEC summit in San Francisco. While negotiations have been closed to members of the public and the press, corporate lobbyists have been reportedly involved in drafting some of the text. Emails obtained by Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s office found that Amazon was granted insider access to IPEF negotiations, receiving updates even as the public was being kept in the dark.
The looming trade pact has set up a new political struggle that will likely far outlast the APEC Seattle meetings. Activists with PNW-POP and other groups hope to continue to organize against IPEF and bring awareness to potential danger of free trade deals.
“It was a fun challenge getting the average person to care about free trade again,” said Comfort. “I didn’t know anything about free trade before this year. But really seeing the impacts it has — now it’s one of those things that we know we have to amplify as an issue.”
Read more of the Aug. 30-Sept. 5, 2023 issue.