Icon NOW: Thailand Leads the Charge towards APEC Crisis Resilience

Benjamin Rujopakarn

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Icon NOW: Thailand Leads the Charge towards APEC Crisis Resilience

What’s in an icon? As part of Thailand NOW’s mission to share authentic insights into all things Thai, we’re spotlighting iconic individuals who have not only excelled in their respective areas, but influenced the complex tapestry of Thailand as it exists today and, in doing so, inspire us to be a part of the fabric of Thai society.

In this Icon NOW interview, Cherdchai Chaivaivid talked about his role in driving Thailand as the host economy of the 2022 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and why crisis resilience is more important than ever.

Cherdchai Chaivaivid, the Director General of Department of International Economics Affairs and the Senior

For two years, Cherdchai Chaivaivid, Director-General of the Department of Economic Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has been a driving force behind Thailand’s APEC host year 2022, from formulating the agenda and theme to organizing in-person meetings for the first time since 2018. 

During the same two years, Thailand had been battered by a once-in-a-generation pandemic that caused an unparalleled public health crisis, tanked its tourism-dependent economy, and turned back the clock on sustainable development.

“The theme we came up with was basically set against both the global and regional context at the time,” Cherdchai explains. “Indeed, entering 2022, most economies, if not all, were starting to realize that we might have to live with COVID-19.”

The theme, “Open. Connect. Balance.” responded to many questions that sat at the heart of Thailand and the wider region.

“What would be the best way to move forward with open trade and investment?”

The Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) has been the holy grail of APEC economic policy. The idea for a Pacific-wide FTA was first raised by Japanese economist Kiyoshi Kojima in 1966, which paved the way for APEC leaders to allude to the vision of FTAAP in 2004 following suggestions from the APEC Business Advisory Council, who foresaw benefits of such a large FTA. 

“What would be the best way to move forward with open trade and investment?” Cherdchai posits. “‘Open’ is very much about getting the FTAAP, or Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, conversation going again.”

As an incubator of high-impact ideas, the regional economic forum will again explore FTAAP for mutual prosperity.

“How to travel safely? That’s the million-dollar question.”

The question on Thailand’s collective mind has been how to get vaccinated people traveling safely again. The global travel and tourism sector lost roughly 4.9 trillion US dollars in 2022 alone. Thailand saw 400,000 visitors in 2021 from 40 million in 2019. 

“We were not in a good place by any means,” Cherdchai says candidly. “Getting people to travel again is very high on our agenda.”

“Connect” is about ensuring that future disruptions do not shut down the region the same way that COVID-19 did.

Cherdchai Chaivaivid during the Icon NOW interview

“If we look at the COVID-19 pandemic as a trilogy,” Cherdchai says, “2020 is how to make sure that economies do not close entirely to essential goods, 2021 is how to make sure that there is a balanced distribution of vaccines, and approaching 2022, now that we have vaccinated enough people, let’s get them to travel again. How to travel safely? That’s the million-dollar question.”

APEC decided to establish the Safe Passage Task Force (SPTF) under Thailand’s host year to establish and implement standards for safe passage, including sharing vaccination information and recognizing vaccine certifications. However, as the COVID-19 crisis began to ebb, I had to ask, what if the SPTF wasn’t relevant anymore?

Thai passport and Thai COVID-19 certificate of vaccination
Source: KenSoftTH / Shutterstock.com

“What if there’s another pandemic around the corner in 2023?” he countered. “What if there’s a major digital disruption across the globe in five years’ time? That is something the Safe Passage Task Force is looking at.”

The doomsday contingency seemed alarmist at the time of the interview, but with the 2022 monkeypox outbreak, Cherdchai’s words are distressingly prophetic.

“How could we, as a community, be more inclusive, more sustainable, more balanced?”

Unfortunately, what is being called the “SDG backslide” is all too real. A 2020 report from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said, “we’ve been set back about 25 years in about 25 weeks.” More recently, UN-ESCAP Secretary-General Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana said in her foreword for the Asia and the Pacific SDG Progress Report 2022, “with every passing year, the 2030 targets are further out of reach.”

The picture isn’t any rosier in the Land of Smiles. Cherdchai acknowledges that “Thailand is not in a good place,” but as host economy, still needed to ask an important question: “How could we, as a community, be more inclusive, more sustainable, more balanced?”

The BCG economy dedicated session in Bangkok, Thailand as part of the APEC 2022 host year

The Bio-Circular-Green Economic Model (BCG Model) is Thailand’s holistic approach to balanced growth, and according to Cherdchai, it’s proven to stoke some exciting conversations this year.

“The Bio-Circular-Green agenda had never been in the ‘conversation super highway’ of APEC, and until now, there had been no mechanism within APEC structure exclusively,” he explains. “So this could be a good opportunity for APEC to revisit the sustainability conversation through the BCG agenda.”

Cherdchai is hopeful that by introducing this sustainability agenda, some of the ideas will translate into domestic practice.

“It’s all in.”

As Thailand’s APEC Senior Official, Cherdchai must coordinate with all agencies to drive forward Thailand’s priorities and deliverables. In the meeting room and out, he works tirelessly to bridge the different opinions, seeking support from all 21 APEC member economies.

“It’s operational. It’s structure. It’s all in,” he says, and a real game-changer this year has been face-to-face conversations. Thailand has the honor of hosting the first in-person APEC meetings in two years of virtual meetings. When asked how he feels about his role, Cherdchai was quick to deflect the spotlight to his team, with characteristically Thai modesty.

“Indeed on a personal level, it has been an honor for me, and I’m sure the rest of my team feels the same. We are part of a small group driving a regional agenda to make sure Thailand continues to make a good impact across the region.”

Cherdchai Chaivaivid at the third APEC media focus group at the EECi, Rayong province, Thailand

Despite the unexpected disruptions from the situation in Ukraine, Thailand presses forward with its APEC host year theme of ”Open. Connect. Balance.”, an agenda that Cherdchai believes the Asia-Pacific region needs now more than ever.

He asserts, “There is no better time to talk about open trade and investment, to make sure that trade and investment continues to benefit economies big or small across the region.”

The last time Thailand served as APEC host economy in 2003, the agenda was eerily similar: a worldwide health and economic crisis due to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) pandemic and threats to human security and air travel. 

These crises aren’t the exception; they’re a pattern. Whether it’s pandemics or war, APEC economies must create for themselves the mechanisms for crisis resilience and prosperity.

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Benjamin Rujopakarn

Ben has worn several hats in broadcast television and radio news programs, culminating in his role as Senior Copywriter at Bangkok-based digital marketing agency PAPER & PAGE (Thailand) Co., Ltd. and Editor-in-Chief of Thailand NOW. Though he has extensive experience in media communications, Ben holds degrees in marine science and molecular biology from UNSW and UT Dallas, respectively.

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