UPDATED at 5:45 a.m. EST on 11-19-2022.
Even as host Thailand passes the APEC baton to its successor the United States, Chinese President Xi Jinping has been busy using the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum to highlight China’s growing clout and push back against U.S. influence in the region.
Having secured an unprecedented third term as leader at the Chinese Communist Party’s Congress last month, Xi embarked on his first major foreign tour since the pandemic struck nearly three years ago – to the Group of 20 Summit in Bali, then the APEC Summit in Bangkok that ended Saturday.
The APEC summit was the third and final gathering of world leaders in Asia in the space of nine days. With U.S. President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin both absent from APEC, the Chinese president virtually had the stage to himself.
During his tour, Xi has for the most part struck a conciliatory tone during his encounters with other heads of states – including U.S. president. The Biden-Xi meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 went some way to tamping down months of rising U.S.-China tensions.
“It certainly appears that Xi Jinping and China’s propaganda enterprise are trying to set a softer tone and appear less overtly antagonistic during the G-20 and APEC summits,” said Drew Thompson, visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.
While in the Thai capital, Xi met with a host of regional leaders including key U.S. allies. He held bilateral talks with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Singaporean Premier Lee Hsien Loong and Philippine President Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos Jr. on a wide range of issues including economic cooperation and security.
Xi also met with Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha — although their initial photo op went viral on social media for the wrong reasons because of the appearance that Xi had snubbed Prayuth’s offer of a handshake.
“President Xi certainly wants to be a major player,” said Ja Ian Chong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore, noting the Chinese leader’s confidence in having unscripted interactions with other leaders – like when he chastised Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over alleged leaks of diplomatic conversations at the G-20.
But Thompson observed: “The underlying differences between China and its neighbors and trading partners remain deeply entrenched and there are no signs that China is adapting its foreign policy approach and how it pursues its interests.”
Gao Zhikai, vice president of the Beijing-based Center for China and Globalization, said Xi’s attendance at APEC accentuated China’s growing leadership role in stark contrast with the U.S.’s “diminishing relevance.”
Biden did in fact attend the G-20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Cambodia that preceded it – a meeting Xi skipped – in an effort to signal U.S. commitment to the region.
But when it came to APEC, which focuses on economic cooperation – an area of Asia policy in which Washington is generally perceived as trailing China – Biden had returned home for a family event.
“The fact that Biden is not at the meeting shows that the U.S. doesn’t care much about APEC,” Gao told RFA.
“Of course, the whole world is aware that his granddaughter is getting married,” said the academic who served as a translator for late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and sometimes acts as de-facto media spokesman for the Chinese Communist Party.
“But if there was interest, the U.S. would know how to show it,” he added.
‘Proud Pacific power’
That’s obviously not the narrative conveyed by Washington, which now takes over the rotating chair of the 21-member APEC bloc, which was set up in 1989 to promote free trade.
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, who was in Bangkok in Biden’s place, told the summit that her country is “a proud Pacific power” and that “the United States is here to stay.”
Harris had a brief meeting with Xi in which she urged the Chinese leadership to “maintain open lines of communication to responsibly manage the competition between our countries.”
On the theme of economic cooperation, Harris said the Indo-Pacific serves as the market for almost 30 percent of American exports and U.S. companies invest $1 trillion a year in the region.
She vowed that the U.S. “will uphold the rules of the road” and “will help build prosperity for everyone.”
Her statement clearly struck a chord with some participating nations which want to avoid being caught up in big-power competition between China and the United States.
Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc said his country supports “all regional and multilateral cooperation frameworks which are based on international principles and regulations.”
Harris appeared to draw a contrast between the U.S. initiative and China’s Belt and Road Initiative that has invested large sums of money in infrastructure across the world, but which critics say can leave recipient countries in heavy debt to Beijing.
Xi said that China is considering holding the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in 2023.
Gao contended that Harris’ main purpose at APEC was actually to promote the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.
The Biden administration launched the IPEF in May as the center of its economic strategy for the region, and the U.S. vice president said the grouping now represents some 40 per cent of the global gross domestic product and is “dedicated to equitable growth and high environmental and labor standards.”
It does not include either Russia or China.
Gao said he suspects “the U.S. is hollowing out APEC for the benefit of IPEF,” which he described as an “artificial, ill-designed” grouping.
“But APEC will remain APEC, a natural, coherent forum of cooperation for all countries in the region,” he said.
Ja Ian Chong at the National University of Singapore said “China has been talking up the emptiness of IPEF and also suggesting the provocative nature of the U.S. for a while now.”
“That, I suppose, suggests a degree of competitiveness with which Beijing views Washington,” he said.
The political scientist said that Xi Jinping’s articulation of policy from the 20th party Congress “seems robust, with repeated emphasis on struggle”, suggesting that Xi’s diplomacy may carry some real toughness behind the seemingly conciliatory tone.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at the Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, told RFA that in his opinion, APEC is still relevant and effective, even if just for the APEC travel card that allows business executives to benefit from easier immigration clearance within the grouping.
“The APEC host’s theme of resilience, sustainability and inclusiveness are part and parcel of the climate agenda and post-COVID recovery.”
“It’s meant to cultivate collective action on both climate and sustainability as well as overcoming the pandemic,” the political analyst said.
This story has been updated with additional analyst comment.