BANGKOK (AP) — Leaders from the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum begin a two-day summit in Thailand’s capital on Friday with a crowded backdrop of issues to contend with: the war in Ukraine, great power rivalry in Asia, and the global crises of food and energy shortages, inflation and supply chain disruptions.
“It is clear that this has been an eventful and challenging year on many fronts,” said Thani Thongphakdi, permanent secretary of Thailand's Foreign Ministry. “The entire APEC region, along with the global economy, is still reeling from the effects of COVID-19 and recovering amidst ongoing economic woes, tensions and crises that have affected all aspects of our lives.”
While APEC leaders grapple with these pressing issues, Thai officials are hoping to steer them toward long-term solutions.
“What we are going to do is to have all economies agree on a set of targets ... climate change mitigation, sustainable trade and investment, environment resources conservation 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 is going to talk about this. This is the first time that we are going to open a new chapter in how trade, business, investment should be done.”
Established in 1989, APEC’s official mission is to promote regional economic integration, which means setting guidelines for long-term development of a free trade area. Most of its work is technical and incremental, carried out by senior officials and ministers, covering areas such as trade, tourism, forestry, health, food, security, small and medium-size enterprises and women’s empowerment.
The private sector is also a major player, with the APEC Business Advisory Council holding its own APEC CEO summit beginning Thursday. Visiting world leaders will address the business community on concerns including sustainability and inclusive growth.
In practice, the annual APEC summit's impact comes from bringing together leaders from the 21 economies on both sides of the Pacific Ocean for bilateral talks and side deals. The Latin American contingent comes from Chile, Mexico and Peru. The other members are Australia, Brunei, Canada, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden are no-shows this year. Putin has been avoiding international forums where he would be showered with criticism over his invasion of Ukraine. Biden will be hosting his granddaughter’s wedding at the White House and has sent Vice President Kamala Harris to represent him in Bangkok.
That leaves President Xi Jinping of China, which competes strongly with the U.S. for influence in Southeast Asia, as the star attendee at the APEC meeting. In addition to APEC, he is making an official visit to Thailand.
The Foreign Ministry’s Thani described Xi's visit as “very significant” since it comes soon after China’s Communist Party held its every-five-year congress and gave Xi a rare third term as leader.
China's Foreign Ministry confirmed Wednesday that Xi will meet with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida during the APEC meeting. The two Asian powers have a history of tense relations, a legacy of Japan's World War II aggression compounded by territorial disputes and China's growing military might.
“This will be the first official meeting between the two leaders and carry great importance,” ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said in Beijing.
Although Biden 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 faced criticism that by not turning up for APEC, he is giving ground to China in the competition for friends and influence in Southeast Asia.
U.S. officials say Washington has demonstrated its seriousness in relations with Southeast Asia with frequent visits by Cabinet members including Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and key senior officials.
As host, Thailand invited three special guests to the meeting: French President Emmanuel Macron, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the prime minister of Saudi Arabia, and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, representing ASEAN. Hun Sen will not attend after testing positive for COVID-19.
For Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the most welcome visitor may well be the Saudi leader, who is making 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.
“This is a good opportunity, that Mohammed bin Salman is visiting Thailand and both countries will resume a good economic relationship after over 30 years,” the chairman of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, Sanan Angubolkul, told The Associated Press. “To have the French president join us also shows how important this region is.”
The overhang of international politics suggests that the meeting will not be smooth sailing. Its disruptive potential became evident during APEC ministerial-level meetings earlier this year, none of which were able to issue a consensus statement because of disagreements over whether to mention Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Thai officials have put the best possible face on the situation, contending that agreement on other points will allow APEC to move forward regardless.
Thailand hopes to make its mark by having the meeting adopt what would become known as APEC’s Bangkok Goals, with a heavy emphasis on sustainability.
“The Bangkok Goals will focus on advancing work on four key areas: on addressing all environmental challenges, including climate change, on progress in sustainable and inclusive trade and investment, and promoting sustainable management of natural resources, protection of the environment and biodiversity, and on advancing resource efficiency and sustainable waste management," Thani said.
Skeptics doubt the meeting will accomplish much.
“This APEC is only a photo opportunity for leaders. Its agenda has drawn much less attention than the ASEAN summit and G-20,” Virot Ali, a political scientist at Thailand's Thammasat University, told The Associated Press.
“I don’t think we will see any progress from APEC. The current geopolitics, trade war, COVID-19, and Russia-Ukraine war are the issues that people are paying more attention to and feeling more impact from,” he said.
Associated Press journalists Grant Peck and Tassanee Vejpongsa contributed to this report.