‘Low-batt’ APEC summit back to search for coherence

Nov 20 2018 - For the first time in 29 years, the 21 countries in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum this week could not agree on a declaration to mark the 2018 meeting of leaders in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

In this era of high-tech and high-speed communications, this year’s meeting will probably be described as a “low-batt” summit because of its perceptible lack of energy and harmony.

Both Presidents Donald Trump of the United States and Vladimir Putin of Russia sent their second-stringers to the summit. Only President Xi Jinping of China was on hand to represent his country.

President Rodrigo Duterte was even initially reported as cutting short his visit to Port Moresby, although he changed his mind and stayed for the meeting of leaders.

The Associated Press described the 2018 summit as an “acrimonious meeting of world leaders” when the leaders failed to agree Sunday on a final communique. That was seen as highlighting the widening divisions between global powers China and the US.

The 21 APEC nations struggled to bridge their differences on the role of the World Trade Organization, which governs international trade. They settled on a statement to be issued, instead, by the meeting’s chair, Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill.

“The entire world is worried” about tensions between China and the US,” O’Neill told reporters after he confirmed that there would be no communique from leaders.

The problem once again was the differing visions of the future by China and the US. For several summits now, the two nations have offered divergent routes toward the future in their preferred policy on global trade.

Draft versions of the proposed communique at Port Moresby, as reported by AP, showed that the US wanted strong language against unfair trade practices that it accused China of perpetrating. China, on the other hand, wanted a reaffirmation of opposition to protectionism and unilateralism in which, it said, the US was engaging.

The two-day summit in PNG, therefore, wound up underlining the rising rivalry between China and the US for influence in the Pacific. US Vice President Mike Pence and Chinese President Xi Jinping even traded sharp barbs in their speeches.

Pence accused China of luring developing nations into a debt trap through the loans it offered for infrastructure.

Xi said the world was facing a choice between cooperation and confrontation as protectionism and unilateralism grew. He said a trade war would produce “no winners.”

Where this tit-for-tat leaves the Asia-Pacific and APEC is unclear.

This could revive interest in the words of former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, who memorably described APEC as “four adjectives in search of meaning.”

As in the beginning, APEC could be engaged again in an acute search for coherence. Ironically, Evans was one of the architects or midwives of APEC when it was born in 1989.

This story was originally published by The Manila Times, Philippines

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