President Xi Jinping’s economic diplomacy and deft downplaying of territorial disputes will be key highlights at the Apec summit meetings in Beijing
If the 2008 Beijing Olympics was a showcase for China’s “soft power” and the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, its economic clout, world leaders and officials gathered in the Chinese capital may be given a display of its geopolitical aspirations and credentials.
During the 22nd summit and related meetings of the 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) grouping, president Xi Jinping is set to employ China’s trump card of economic diplomacy to push regional integration initiatives.
Hosting the biggest political event since he took power in November 2012, the Chinese leader will hope to draw the focus away from his country’s territorial disputes with neighbours and a series of assertive moves that have unsettled the region in the past two years.
“It is Xi’s first time at hosting a grand-level world event and he would want to project China as a sophisticated power and not invite any global attention on its territorial disputes,” said Singapore- based analyst Hoo Tiang Boon of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
“He would also want to portray himself as a world statesman, and not a small-minded leader unbefitting of the grand stage.”
For these reasons, Apec provides a platform for meetings between Xi and foreign leaders whom he had not met because of the territorial disputes.
Most eyes will be on whether a meeting with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will take place on the sidelines. This looks increasingly likely, judging from a recent flurry of high-level meetings between the two sides.
“I think the meeting will happen, but in an informal setting. Given the Apec framework, it is only reasonable for the Chinese leader to meet the Japanese leader. Not to do so will raise questions about appropriateness, among others,” said analyst Yun Sun of the Stimson Centre think-tank in Washington.
“More importantly, a meeting with Abe does not equal any policy change so there is no major cost to China to have the meeting,” he added.
A meeting with Philippine President Benigno Aquino, whose country and China are locked in competing sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, seems more unlikely.
Philippine media reported recently that Manila had not sought a bilateral meeting for fear it would be rejected. It is now planning a “standing summit”, in the hope that Beijing would accept as the Philippines will be next year’s Apec host.
What has been confirmed is an “informal” summit between Xi and US President Barack Obama in a redux of their Sunnylands meeting in California in June last year.
That summit saw both leaders holding candid discussions that lasted eight hours over two days and agreeing to build a “new type of major-power relationship”.
Their second informal summit, which will take place in a lakeside setting on Wednesday next week, will see both leaders taking stock of that relationship which China is pushing despite reservations on the part of the United States.
Contentious issues ranging from cyber security, the US stance in China’s territorial spats with its neighbours, and remarks that Washington has made on the Occupy Central protests in Hong Kong, are set to top the agenda.
Analysts believe the informal summit will take place amid a less tense backdrop as Beijing knows that Washington’s rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific has been constrained by other challenges such as the terrorism threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
“There are too many things going on for the US to want to jeopardise bilateral ties with China now,” said Dr Hoo.
Judging from the theme chosen for this year’s Apec summit – “Shaping the Future through Asia-Pacific Partnership” – expectations are high that China will expound on its pet initiatives to show itself as a big-hearted country willing to make room for the US in the region.
Some key Chinese initiatives are the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which will fund infrastructure in the region, and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Route aimed at improving connectivity and trade through the South China Sea.
To secure support, China has invited Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj to attend the summit and also supported their applications to join Apec.
Call it China’s “Apec diplomacy”. This will be in full display over this week and next.