Even as host Thailand hands over the APEC baton to the United States, Chinese President Xi Jinping was very busy using the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum to highlight China’s growing clout and counter U.S. influence in the region.
Following his unprecedented third term as leader of the Chinese Communist Party at the party’s Congress last month, Xi embarked on his first major foreign tour since the pandemic struck nearly three years ago, to the Group of 20 Summit in Bali, followed by the APEC Summit in Bangkok, which concluded Saturday.
The APEC summit was Asia’s third and final gathering of world leaders in nine days. With both US President Joe Biden and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin absent from APEC, China’s President had virtually the entire stage to himself.
During his tour, Xi generally struck a conciliatory tone in meetings with other heads of state, including the US president. The Biden-Xi meeting on the sidelines of the G20 helped to alleviate months of rising US-China tensions.
“It appears that Xi Jinping and China’s propaganda enterprise are attempting to set a softer tone and appear less overtly antagonistic during the G20 and APEC summits,” said Drew Thompson, a visiting senior research fellow at Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
While in Bangkok, Xi met with a number of regional leaders, including key US allies. He met with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on a variety of issues, including economic cooperation and security.
Xi also met Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, though their initial photo op went viral for the wrong reasons due to the appearance that Xi had declined Prayuth’s offer of a handshake.
“President Xi certainly wants to be a major player,” said Ja Ian Chong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore, citing the Chinese leader’s confidence in having unscripted interactions with other leaders, such as when he chastised Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the G20 for alleged leaks of diplomatic conversations.
“The underlying differences between China and its neighbours and trading partners remain deeply entrenched,” Thompson observed, “and there are no signs that China is adapting its foreign policy approach or how it pursues its interests.”
According to Gao Zhikai, vice president of the Beijing-based Center for China and Globalization, Xi’s presence at APEC highlighted China’s growing leadership role in stark contrast to the United States’ “diminishing relevance.”
In an effort to signal the United States’ commitment to the region, Biden attended the G-20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia, as well as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Cambodia, which Xi skipped.
However, when it came to APEC, which focuses on economic cooperation – an area of Asia policy where Washington is widely perceived to lag behind China – Biden had returned home for a family event.
“The absence of Biden at the meeting demonstrates that the United States is unconcerned about APEC,” Gao told RFA.
“Of course, the whole world is aware that his granddaughter is getting married,” said the academic who worked as a translator for Deng Xiaoping and sometimes acts as the Chinese Communist Party’s de facto media spokesman.
“However, if there was interest, the United States would know how to demonstrate it,” he added.
That is clearly not the narrative being conveyed by Washington, which now assumes the rotating chair of the 21-member APEC bloc, which was formed in 1989 to promote free trade.
In Biden’s absence, US Vice President Kamala Harris told the summit that the US is a “proud Pacific power” and that “the United States is here to stay.”
Harris met briefly with Xi, urging the Chinese leadership to “maintain open lines of communication to responsibly manage our countries’ competition.”
On the topic of economic cooperation, Harris stated that the Indo-Pacific region accounts for nearly 30% of American exports and that US companies invest $1 trillion in the region each year.
She vowed that the United States “will uphold the rules of the road” and “will contribute to the prosperity of all.”
Her words clearly struck a chord with some of the participating countries, who want to avoid being drawn into the big-power competition between China and the United States.
Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the Vietnamese president, stated that his country supports “all regional and multilateral cooperation frameworks based on international principles and regulations.”
Harris appeared to draw a comparison between the US initiative and China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which has invested large sums of money in infrastructure around the world but has critics who claim recipient countries will be heavily in debt to Beijing.
China is considering holding the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in 2023, according to Xi.
Gao claimed that Harris’ primary goal at APEC was to promote the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.
The Biden administration established the IPEF in May as the centrepiece of its regional economic strategy, and the US vice president stated that the organization now represents roughly 40% of global GDP and is “dedicated to equitable growth and high environmental and labour standards.” It excludes neither Russia nor China.
Gao believes “the US is hollowing out APEC for the benefit of IPEF,” which he calls a “artificial, ill-conceived” grouping.
“However, APEC will continue to be APEC, a natural, coherent forum of cooperation for all countries in the region,” he said.
“China has been talking up the emptiness of IPEF and also suggesting the provocative nature of the US for a while now,” said Ja Ian Chong of the National University of Singapore.
“I suppose that suggests a level of competitiveness with which Beijing regards Washington.”
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Security and International Studies, told RFA that APEC was still relevant and effective, even if only for the APEC travel card, which allows business executives to benefit from easier immigration clearance within the grouping.
“The APEC host theme of resilience, sustainability, and inclusiveness is inextricably linked to the climate agenda and post-COVID recovery.”
“It’s intended to foster collective action on climate and sustainability, as well as overcoming the pandemic,” the political analyst explained.