The forum of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) continues to keep India out. Not just geography but also geopolitics is the basis of this reality. At the moment, there is also no authoritative word whether an APEC summit, scheduled to be held in Singapore this month, will review the India question.

Formally, APEC’s existing moratorium on admitting new members is due for review at only next year’s summit in Japan. In these circumstances, India’s non-APEC credentials resonate with the continued exclusion of the United States from the forum of East Asia Summit (EAS). India, like China and Japan among others, is a founding member of the 16-state EAS. And, the geopolitical footprint of EAS does have some overlapping implications for APEC as well. This is an issue that may come into soft focus, more so behind the scenes, during the prospective APEC summit in Singapore in mid-November.

Essentially, the Asian and Pacific regions were hyphenated to form APEC as a group of select economies, not sovereign states, along the Pacific Ocean rim. There is nothing wrong with such an identity, except that it has remained a barrier to the entry of India and a few others into this key intercontinental club. The United States, China, Japan, Russia, Australia, several Southeast Asian states, Hong Kong as a special administrative region of China, and the non-sovereign Chinese Taipei are among the 21 APEC economies. A profile of this nature does make APEC an attractive forum for potential members like India.

No bets can, of course, be placed with any certainty that India will in fact benefit greatly by becoming an APEC member. However, if APEC now begins to act decisively, it will rank next only to the global Group of 20 (G20) in addressing international economic concerns. And, as a G20 member, India knows that APEC cannot be brushed aside as an inconsequential forum. This is so, despite the fact that APEC is not in the same league as the Group of 8 (G8) industrialised countries. G8 is a caucus within G20; some developing countries too are beginning to coordinate their positions like an informal bloc among the 20 trouble-shooters.

Politically, APEC membership can never also match the substantive status of veto-empowered permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council. For now, such a role at the U.N. is surely out of New Delhi’s reach, regardless of the spin that India might rather not aspire for an undemocratic veto right. Overall, a potential APEC membership will, therefore, be something that India cannot exclude from its world-view.

A sub-optimal scenario is of course possible still. If APEC loses momentum, because of the rise of G20 on the global economic scene, the Asia-Pacific outfit may become a pale shadow of its original self. APEC may then look like the forum of Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), essentially a secondary trade bloc with no mandate for a global role.

However, the prospective APEC summit in Singapore can still help keep the forum relevant to the global economy. APEC surely has a very large economic profile that ASEM cannot at all match. Three of the world’s topmost economies, including the U.S. as the highest-ranking one, are in the Asia-Pacific forum and not ASEM. Secondly, but no less importantly, new ideas of community-building now resonate across the Asia-Pacific region.

Being a unique economic forum, does APEC have a futuristic agenda at all? By window-dressing or real efforts, the U.S. economy is projected to be on its way out of a deep recession, almost just in time for this month’s APEC summit. Host Singapore is also exuding a feel-good sense of confidence about not only the City-State’s own economic recovery but also the APEC summit.

Three major issues

Three major economic issues are expected to dominate the summit, according to Michael Tay, APEC’s Executive Director, and other officials. For the first time, this forum plans to shine the spotlight on inclusive growth in the member-economies. Broadly defined, inclusive growth denotes concern for the economic well-being of all sections of society. Such growth is a humane version of the statistical niceties like gross domestic product and per capita income. So, if discussed with empathy for people’s welfare as the purpose of economic activity, the planned focus on inclusive growth can make APEC better. Other related ideas are sustainable growth and balanced development, according to U.S. officials. Sustainable growth is meant to promote economic activity in a manner designed to ensure planet-friendly climate as well.

Trade being an APEC concern, officials expect the prospective Singapore summit to try and give a political thrust to the worldwide Doha Round. The third but not the least of APEC concerns now is to facilitate investment flows, not just trade, across the intercontinental region.

The politics of the prospective APEC summit will centre as much on personalities as on some new ideas already in focus. U.S. President Barack Obama and the new Japanese Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, both fond of the mantra of change, will participate. Unlike in the case of the global forum of G20, the essentially regional entities of EAS and APEC have somewhat overlapping geopolitical concerns. It is, therefore, possible that Mr. Hatoyama may, in a broad-brush manner, brief the other APEC leaders about his long-term vision of an East Asia Community. A Japanese official emphasises that Mr. Hatoyama has said that the corner-stone of the superstructure of his foreign policy would be the Japan-U.S. alliance.

In this regional political milieu, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd cannot let go of an opportunity to expound his idea of an Asia Pacific Community. The theme will be in tune with APEC’s geopolitical sweep. However, the proposal, as outlined by him so far, will allow India, a non-APEC member, a pride of place in a possible Asia Pacific Community. Interesting, therefore, will be Mr. Obama’s response, if any, to the new ideas from Mr. Rudd and Mr. Hatoyama.

No less important will be the responses from China, expected to be represented by President Hu Jintao at the planned Singapore summit, and from Russia too. Some expert opinions, expressed in other situations, are very much relevant, though, to the present context.

Sheng Lijun, an expert on China-U.S. ties, has seen Beijing as being engaged in bringing about “chemical, not physical changes” in Washington’s foreign policy. In his view, both the U.S. and China seek to “reform” each other. Tim Huxley, an expert on Asia-Pacific equations, says that Mr. Hatoyama has not signalled any intention of “breaching Japan’s alliance with the U.S.” At the same time, he believes that freelance theories about the emerging anti-China coalitions are also “exaggerated” in the present circumstances.

Potential membership of the forum of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation is something that India cannot exclude from its world-view.

More In: Comment | Opinion