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UB faculty share limelight at international APEC conference

UB Faculty at APEC conference.

UB law professor Meredith Kolsky Lewis (second from right) attends a roundtable with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Camille Dawson (left). Photo: Jessie P.H. Poon


Published December 5, 2023

Jessie Poon.
“Many countries in the world, not just Asia, are grappling with what this new model means for international trade and investment. The conference provided a platform to address and clarify some of the confusion. ”
Jessie P.H. Poon, professor
Department of Geography

The co-directors of UB’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Study Center played vital roles in the recent international Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, organizing and hosting a key conference and addressing comprehensive issues of economic trade under the scrutiny of international leaders.

The co-directors — Meredith Kolsky Lewis, vice dean for international and graduate programs, School of Law, and Jessie P.H. Poon, professor in the Department of Geography — organized the APEC Study Centers Consortium Conference, held concurrently with the APEC Economic Leaders’ Week.

The conference was held at the University of California-Berkeley on Nov. 15 during the APEC Economic Leaders’ Week, which took place Nov. 11-17 in San Fransisco. International leaders from throughout the Asia-Pacific, including President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, addressed comprehensive trade issues during the leaders’ week meetings.

Lewis and Poon were selected by their peers as co-chairs of the U.S. APEC Study Center Consortium and in this capacity planned the consortium conference.

They faced what officials called “a daunting task”: how to organize an in-person conference at a venue 3,000 miles away with no initial sense of how much interest there would be in an in-person event after a lengthy stretch of virtual conferences due to the pandemic.

“We reached out to Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Study Centers in other countries, to the APEC Secretariat and to organizations such as the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council (PECC) to brainstorm,” says Lewis. “Ultimately, we decided on an in-person only format.”

As the call for papers was distributed, it became clear that scholars and students from many universities, as well as nonprofit leaders, government officials, corporate executives and international media groups, were eager to attend the conference.

“Unfortunately, we had to turn away a lot of people,” Lewis says. “It was exciting to generate so much interest. We just wished we could have accommodated more people, but we were at room capacity.”

Clarifying confusion

The conference, which was featured prominently on the website of leaders’ week events, reflected the overall theme of the leaders’ week: “creating a resilient and sustainable future for all.” It examined the changing trade policies of the U.S. and other major trade partners throughout Asia and the Western Hemisphere.

“The 2023 conference is very important because trade tension has been high between the U.S. and China,” Poon explains. “The U.S., in particular, appears to be eschewing traditional textbook understandings of trade that see vehicles such as APEC as beneficial because they promote market integration and tariff elimination.”

Recent trade policy increasingly favors a “small yard and high fence” model, according to Biden’s security adviser, Jake Sullivan, a strategy that protects selected strategic assets without losing the wider benefits gained from an important economic partner.

“A good example is the recent CHIPS and Science Act that seeks to curtail the transfer of advanced semiconductor technology to China,” says Poon. “In retaliation, China has imposed export restrictions on certain critical minerals that are important in the production of semiconductors.  

“Many countries in the world, not just Asia, are grappling with what this new model means for international trade and investment. The conference provided a platform to address and clarify some of the confusion.”

UB’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Study Center is one of six such centers in the U.S. that work to encourage institutional networks and academic research on trade and investment in the APEC region.

UB’s symbolic presence

The U.S. Rustbelt has seen considerable offshoring of manufacturing and blue-collar worker displacement, according to the two UB scholars.

“Deindustrialization in the Midwest and Northeast has contributed to the U.S. turning to a new model of trade that puts climate change, inclusivity and middle-class prosperity at the center,” says Poon.

“It is symbolic that UB, located at the heart of the Rustbelt, was selected to organize the conference, whereas past conferences have been dominated by coastal universities.

“The Biden administration is ready to abandon the business-as-usual model of trade that is thought to have contributed to the Rustbelt’s economic decline,” Poon notes. “However, the new model has also prompted anxiety among countries in Asia that have benefitted from the old model. As the meetings in San Francisco showed, APEC remains a viable platform for countries with significant disagreements and anxieties to engage.

“The alternative could be disastrous for the world economy,” she says, “especially if the U.S. and China were to decouple from one another, given the importance of both countries in global supply chains, but also President Biden’s commitment to slowing climate change and developing renewable energy technology. China and APEC countries’ cooperation is relevant to accomplish these goals.”

Both the conference and the leaders’ week were important to send a vital message to the other countries participating in the global meetings, according to the UB co-chairs.

“The U.S. has gone from shaping the rules for expanded Asia-Pacific integration to sitting on the sidelines,” says Lewis. “Many APEC members worry the U.S. has lost interest in the region and has ceased to provide a counterweight to China.

“The U.S. hosting APEC this year has provided a useful and important opportunity for the U.S. to demonstrate its continued interest in the region, and for other APEC members to be able to engage with the U.S.”