Leaders of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum kick off a two-day summit in the Thai capital on Friday against the backdrop of a host of issues to grapple with: war in Ukraine, great power rivalry in Asia and global food crises and energy shortages, inflation and supply chain disruptions.
“It is clear that this year has been turbulent and difficult on many fronts,” said Thani Thongphakdi, permanent secretary at Thailand’s foreign ministry. “The entire APEC region, as well as the global economy, is still reeling from the effects of COVID-19 and recovering amid economic difficulties, tensions and crises that have affected all aspects of our lives.”
As APEC leaders grapple with these pressing issues, Thai officials hope to steer them toward long-term solutions.
“What we’re going to do is get all economies to agree on a set of goals…climate change mitigation, sustainable trade and investment, conservation of environmental resources and, of course , waste management,” said Cherdchai Chaivaivid, director general of Thailand’s Department of International Economic Affairs. “This is the first time that APEC has spoken about it. This is the first time that we are going to open a new chapter on how trade, business and investment should be done. »
Established in 1989, APEC’s official mission is to promote regional economic integration, which means establishing guidelines for the long-term development of a free trade area. Most of its work is technical and progressive, carried out by senior officials and ministers, covering areas such as trade, tourism, forestry, health, food, security, small and medium enterprises and l empowerment of women.
The private sector is also a major player, with the APEC Business Advisory Council hosting its own APEC CEO Summit starting Thursday. Visiting world leaders will address the business community on concerns such as sustainability and inclusive growth.
In practice, the impact of the annual APEC summit comes from bringing together the leaders of the 21 economies from both sides of the Pacific Ocean for bilateral talks and side deals. The Latin American contingent comes from Chile, Mexico and Peru. Other members are Australia, Brunei, Canada, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden are not running this year. Putin has avoided international forums where he would be showered with criticism over his invasion of Ukraine. Biden will host his granddaughter’s wedding at the White House and has sent Vice President Kamala Harris to represent him in Bangkok.
That leaves Chinese President Xi Jinping, who competes heavily with the United States for influence in Southeast Asia, as the star attendee at the APEC meeting. In addition to APEC, he is paying an official visit to Thailand.
Thani of the Foreign Ministry called Xi’s visit “very significant” because it comes shortly after the Chinese Communist Party held its congress every five years and gave Xi a rare third term in office. head.
China’s Foreign Ministry confirmed on Wednesday that Xi will meet Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the APEC meeting. The two Asian powers have a history of strained relations, a legacy of World War II Japanese aggression compounded by territorial disputes and China’s growing military might.
“This will be the first official meeting between the two leaders and is of great significance,” ministry spokesman Mao Ning said in Beijing.
Although Biden has attended two other recent multilateral meetings in the region, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Cambodia and the Group of 20 summit in Indonesia, he has been criticized that by not showing up not in APEC, it is losing ground to China in the competition. for friends and influence in Southeast Asia.
US officials say Washington has demonstrated its seriousness in its Southeast Asian relations with frequent visits from Cabinet members, including Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and key senior officials.
As host, Thailand has invited three special guests to the meeting: French President Emmanuel Macron, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi Prime Minister, and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, representing ASEAN. Hun Sen will not be present after testing positive for COVID-19.
For Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the most valued visitor may well be the Saudi leader, who is on an official visit to help restore friendly relations with Thailand after decades of disruption due to a theft of Saudi royal jewelry. and the unsolved murders of Saudi diplomats in Bangkok.
“It is a good opportunity for Mohammed bin Salman to visit Thailand and the two countries will resume a good economic relationship after more than 30 years,” Thai Chamber of Commerce President Sanan Angubolkul told The Associated Press. “Having the French president with us also shows how important this region is.”
The international political overhead suggests the meeting will not go smoothly. Its disruptive potential became evident at APEC ministerial meetings earlier this year, none of which were able to issue a consensus statement due to disagreements over whether to mention Russia’s war in Ukraine. .
Thai officials put the best face possible on the situation, saying agreement on other issues will allow APEC to move forward regardless.
Thailand hopes to leave its mark by having the meeting adopt what would become APEC’s Bangkok Goals, with particular emphasis on sustainability.
“The Bangkok goals will focus on advancing work in four key areas: addressing all environmental challenges, including climate change, advancing sustainable and inclusive trade and investment, and promoting the sustainable management of natural resources. , environmental and biodiversity protection, and on promoting resource efficiency and sustainable waste management,” Thani said.
Skeptics doubt the meeting will accomplish much.
“This APEC is just a picture opportunity for leaders. Its agenda has attracted far less attention than the ASEAN summit and the G-20,” Virot Ali, a political scientist at Thailand’s Thammasat University, told The Associated Press.
“I don’t think we’ll see progress from APEC. Current geopolitics, trade war, COVID-19 and Russian-Ukrainian war are the issues people are paying more attention to and feeling the most impact on,” he said.
Associated Press reporters Grant Peck and Tassanee Vejpongsa contributed to this report.
This story was originally published November 16, 2022 8:19 p.m.