Summits in Asia are being shaped by geopolitical angst
While much of the world’s attention this month is on the UN Climate Change Conference, COP 27, in Egypt, there are also important summits taking place in Asia that will help shape the international order into 2023 and beyond.
While the G20 summit in Indonesia on Nov. 15 and 16 is a global forum that will attract significant publicity, there is also the regional ASEAN/East Asia Summit in Cambodia (Nov. 10-13), and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leadership meeting in Thailand (Nov. 18 and 19).
These events come against the backdrop of a local landscape that is still recovering from a pandemic that New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the host of last year’s APEC leadership meeting described as a “once-in-a-century crisis” and the biggest economic and political shock since the Second World War.
Small wonder, then, that the key theme of the APEC gathering in Thailand this month, which will include private-sector executives, will be the rehabilitation of economies. The stated goals are deeper economic cooperation, an improved environment for trade and investment, and the adoption and sharing of innovation.
Yet as many leaders seek to promote an inclusive, sustainable and resilient recovery from the shock of the pandemic, geopolitical fissures are complicating this. The most recent divisions are the result of the conflict in Ukraine which has split the region.
Last month, for example, the US, Australia, Canada, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand pledged during the APEC meeting of finance ministers to double down on support for Ukraine in its struggle against the Russian invasion, along with stepping up their efforts to address food, energy and inflation shocks caused by the conflict.
Yet the Ukraine issue is far from the only one to cause fragmentation within the huge APEC club which includes not only the aforementioned countries but also China, Russia, Taiwan, Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, Chile, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Peru. Collectively, APEC states account for about 60 percent of global gross domestic product.
On top of the Russia-Ukraine issue there is the longer-simmering fissure between Washington and Beijing, which has been a recurring cause of tension during recent summits in Asia in which the two nations have been involved.
The most recent divisions are the result of the conflict in Ukraine which has split the region.
Given that the US and China are by far the two most powerful states in the world today, this has strained the consensus-driven approach that previously prevailed within APEC and other regional multilateral forums.
In this context of geopolitical angst, Thailand hopes to be able to conclude some key pieces of business at APEC this month, including a reported four-year action plan to try to deliver the so-called Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific agreement.
While the FTAAP is an economic proposal, it has a heavy geopolitical aspect to it. The initiative has been under discussion at APEC since at least 2008 and has assumed higher importance for China, in particular, since the inception of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was originally the brainchild of the Obama administration in the US, though the Trump team withdrew US from the agreement.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has previously said that the FTAAP does not “go against existing free-trade arrangements.” At the heart of the debate, however, are contrasting visions of the regional order.
Beijing’s push for projects such as its Belt and Road Initiative, alongside projects such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, plus its desire for APEC to deliver on FTAAP, provides a model for economic integration conducive to its national interests (not least because it would be explicitly part of the new economic agreements and help shape their design, unlike the case of the CPTPP).
US President Joe Biden’s team is well aware of this and is beginning to set out its own stall for shaping the regional order, although some allies are already disappointed that the president will skip this year’s APEC event, with his deputy, Kamala Harris, taking his place.
It is likely that over the next 12 months, in advance of the US hosting APEC in 2023, there will be more announcements from the White House about its emerging regional strategy in an effort to demonstrate commitment to what it describes as a free and open Asia-Pacific.
Many US regional allies would dearly welcome Biden’s development of a comprehensive and well-funded grand strategy to embed US influence, as Obama intended, with CPTPP at its heart. In the post-war period, the US has undertaken a global institution-building project to encourage the growth of democracy and open markets across the world, including the founding of APEC itself.
Yet, with Donald Trump pulling the plug on US participation in CPTPP, and his disparaging comments about other institutions, such as the World Trade Organization, a vacuum in US influence exists that still has not been fully filled by Biden.
The danger for Washington is that unless the president acts decisively during his remaining time in office, momentum could build for a regional architecture, including RCEP and Belt and Road, that allows Beijing to assume the upper hand, damaging US influence not only among local allies but potentially in regions beyond, too.
• Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.