Donald Trump wasn't even there, but he was all the talk at APEC

Donald Trump was the key talking point at APEC this morning.
SHANNON STAPLETON

Donald Trump was the key talking point at APEC this morning.

OPINION: Is there an opposite to "the elephant in the room"?

Because if there is, Donald Trump was just that at this weekend's APEC summit in Lima Peru.

Nobody, it seemed, could avoid talking about him, even though he was not in the building. 

From world leaders of the 21 nations present, to the throng of business chief executives drawn to the annual free trade talkfest, he was the topic of the moment. 

Amid fears of greater protectionism, a halt to free trade, and less US influence, what effect would his victory have? 

Was the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership dead without him, or would his business instincts cut in, so he would strike a deal? 

Could a "TPP minus-1" be a goer, leaving the US out in the cold?

Had the US given up leadership on climate change, strategic issues in the Pacific region, trade, or even - less overtly  expressed - military pre-eminence?

Is China now the go-to country on all these issues? 

Did the "pax Americana" that ensured the world avoided major power clashes since 1945, end on November 9, 2016 when Trump was declared the winner?  

Chinese president Xi Jinping - who led the biggest delegation at the event - sensed the opportunity, in his speech to business leaders.

"China will not shut its door to the outside world but open more," was the quote than echoed around the conference halls.

Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto, manning the frontline against Trumps anti-immigration and anti-free trade rhetoric, said he was prepared to talk turkey with Trump to "modernise" the North American free trade deal with the US and Canada. 

But the nations of the TPP were clearly torn.

Some - like New Zealand, Mexico and Japan - will have ratified by the end of the year, and others are likely to follow in the two year window to get the whole deal across the line.

None are saying they are out if the US is not in.

But it is less clear if the "TPP minus-1" notion is a real deal or just a bargaining chip against the US.

Prime Minister John Key, now effectively the elder statesman of TPP and President Barack Obama's proxy when he is absent, effectively set out the options and the strategic issues at stake.

First, a warning to the US; free trade is in your long term interest and there are sound strategic reasons why you should be leading the charge, including in the Asia-Pacific. If you are not there, China will fill the void.

Second, "the tremendous despair"' he detected when he arrived in Lima was better channeled into a return to the fundamental reasons why free trade was beneficial - and a willingness to sell it to your people and if necessary go it alone without the US, although a TPP with the US would be preferable.
Lastly, a way should be found to lure "business guy" Trump back into the TPP tent.

Key joked that it could be renamed "the Trump Pacific Partnership" in an oblique swipe at the infamous Trump ego, although he quickly made clear he was not proposing selling naming rights to the pact.

But his serious message was that some "cosmetic changes" could be made to hand Trump a symbolic victory; nothing too extreme as to trigger a full-scale renegotiation, but enough to keep his honour with the US voters.. and let him navigate the political shoals that would follow.

But despite the signature Key solution, wriggling through the minefield of issues, the angst around the conference centre and inside the media marquee was palpable.

The ethos underpinning Apec, long a beacon of free trade and embodying an acceptance of its benefits, was for the first time being challenged. 

Former NZ Reserve Bank Governor, now Apec executive director, Alan Bollard, sees the way forward as a softer version of the broad (some would say low-quality) Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific encompassing virtually the whole 21-nation Apec grouping. 

That option would be more "Apec-like"; less about black-letter free trade pacts like the TPP, and more about talk, cooperation and incremental freeing up of trade. 

It would also reinforce China's influence. 

As Key noted, Trump was hardly likely to embrace a region-wide deal if he could not stomach the 12-nation TPP.

But the overall impression of Apec 2016 is of a sea change in sentiment. 

Gone are the free-trade certainties. Bland talk of "connectedness" that has been Apec's bread and butter now seems strangely quaint.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg tried to breathe high-tech life into it, talking up in his keynote speech the growth in jobs and living standards a more technologically-connected world could deliver.
The flagship was the Facebook pavilion, showcasing drone technology that could bring wifi to remote places currently offline.

Whether it was politically calculated or not, Key rained on his parade too, telling him in person why he had an awful public relations problem over perceptions his firm was not paying its fair share of tax.

And as several speakers noted, it was Silicon Valley that voted most strongly for Hillary Clinton and against - that man again - Trump. 

It is not just Asia-Pacific trade ministers who need to come to grips with a changing world.
It is those at the cutting edge of change as well.

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