The APEC 2022 Leaders' Summit in Bangkok closed with a joint declaration, an unexpected outcome at the opening of the meetings. For Thailand it is a success. The account of what happened diplomatically (with China and the United States in the lead) and the results of the summit
Article by Francesco Mattogno
Better times have been seen, that's for sure. But the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, staged in Bangkok from 14 to 19 November, went better than expected and ended with a joint declaration by the leaders of the group's 21 economies. The outcome was not trivial: announced failure was long around the corner. With a final sigh of relief, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha (who held the 2022 chairmanship of the economic forum) called the summit 'a success'.
On Friday, just hours before the leaders - who were expected to meet for the last two days of the APEC meeting - officially opened, news of North Korea's launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile arrived in Thailand. US Vice President Kamala Harris, standing in for President Joe Biden, called an emergency meeting with the number ones of Japan, South Korea, Australia, Canada and New Zealand to 'strongly condemn' Pyongyang's actions.
For three days, Xi Jinping was the undisputed star in Bangkok. Fresh from a G20 summit full of bilateral engagements and talks, Xi confirmed his return to the world diplomatic scene by doing the same in Thailand. "The Asia-Pacific is no one's backyard and should not become an arena for competition between great powers," he began in a letter presented at the meeting between representatives of APEC countries. Reiterating his no to a new 'cold war', Xi reassured partners of China's willingness to pursue 'economic cooperation' and rejected 'protectionism' and the 'politicisation of trade relations'. He then moved on to the face-to-face meetings.
The most significant, though not the most important in terms of content, was Saturday's (brief) one with Kamala Harris. It served to confirm what he said with Biden in Bali: China and the US must 'keep the lines of communication open'. Instead, the meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was more dense. Beyond diplomatic pleasantries, during their first face-to-face meeting the two leaders discussed security and Tokyo's concerns about the South China Sea, the Senkaku Islands (which China claims as its own and calls Diaoyu) and Taiwan. While Kishida reiterated the importance of maintaining 'peace' over the strait, Xi confirmed that China does not accept 'external interference'.
New Zealand's Premier Jacinda Ardern raised the same concerns as her Japanese counterpart in her talks with the Chinese leader. On the Taiwan issue, the exchange Xi Jinping had with Taipei's representative at the summit, TSMC founder Morris Chang, was interesting. A light-hearted but 'pleasant and polite' conversation, Chang said at the press conference. In addition to host Prayut, Xi also held 'business' talks with the prime ministers of Singapore (Lee Hsien Loong) and Papua New Guinea (James Marape), and the presidents of Chile and the Philippines, Gabriel Boric and Ferdinand Marcos Jr. respectively.
The Philippines is one of the countries with which China has open disputes over the South China Sea. The general secretary of the CCP asked Marcos to 'not take sides' and not to choose between Washington and Beijing, but on this front Harris scored a point. Following the APEC summit, Biden's deputy left for Manila. There he scheduled meetings with Marcos Jr. and his vice-president, Sara Duterte, before travelling on Tuesday 22 to the province of Palawan, right next to the disputed South China Sea area with Beijing.
During her two days in Bangkok, Harris sought to challenge Xi on both diplomacy (there were many bilaterals for her as well, discussing semiconductors with Morris Chang himself) and rhetoric. "The United States is a proud Pacific power," she declared at the summit, "and has an enduring economic commitment to the region." In short: we are here to stay. The US number two was accompanied by Trade Representative Katherine Tai - who spoke with counterpart ministers from South Korea and China - and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
After receiving the baton of the APEC chairmanship from Prayut (the next summit will be held in San Francisco in 2023), Harris committed the US to Thai nuclear development. "Our investments are transparent, climate-friendly" and do not "put countries in debt", he said in clear allusion to China.
Despite calls for cooperation and trade liberalisation, the subtext thus always seems to be the Washington-Beijing confrontation/clash. For French President Emmanuel Macron, the summit's external guest, avoiding this kind of 'choice between the two superpowers' is crucial to ensuring the region's economic development. This is also what emerges from the leaders' final joint statement.
It was not the strengthening of trade ties, however, that risked not producing the summit's concluding document. The needle of the scales remained the disagreements over the war in Ukraine, which were resolved with a compromise in line with that already reached at the G20. While 'recognising that APEC is not the [appropriate] forum for security issues, security issues can have significant consequences for the global economy', the statement read. Thus, it was decided to include that 'most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine' on the understanding that there are 'other points of view' on the conflict.
It was a linguistic balancing act that allowed Thailand to drive home the declaration, and thus get the other 20 economies in the group to share its agenda. The leaders approved a work plan for a future regional free trade agreement - building on the existing RCEP and CPTPP - and for facilitating cross-border travel, made more complicated by covid. Above all, with the declaration, APEC countries effectively adopted the Bangkok Bio-Circular-Green (BCG) project, whereby members commit to invest in economic activities that protect environmental sustainability. The actual sustainability of APEC projects and regional economic integration will all be issues delegated to the future. There have been some signs of thawing, but divisions between China and the US remain, over trade and the war in Ukraine: in general, over the fate of the current international system. Probably only the absence of a truly weighty profile to represent Russia in Bangkok (there was Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov) prevented the summit from failing. These days, a success.