Will APEC Meet Reveal a US Asia Pivot?

7 November 2023
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By Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn, Senior Communications Advisor: Mid-November will mark another important milestone in the chronicles of US involvement in Asia. President Joe Biden will host the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders Meeting from Nov 15-17 in San Francisco.

Given the timing and current geopolitical turbulence, the stakes are extremely high for the host to ensure that the world's largest economic summit will not be fruitless. It will also demonstrate whether the US is still pivoting in Asia or if Washington is about to run out of steam. For the time being, all 20 economies have more or less confirmed that they will attend the summit except two great powers, Russia and China.

For now, the chance of any credible leader from Russia going to the Bay area is out of the question. The ongoing Russia-Ukraine war has hampered Apec discussions and cooperation throughout the year, notwithstanding the recent flare-up of the Israel-Hamas war. In discussions at the senior and ministerial levels, the American host has not received any support from Russia, and that goes both ways. As it stands now, the host will need China's support over whether the San Francisco meeting will be a shipwreck or follow its course.

First of all, Chinese President Xi Jinping has not said anything about his attendance at the Apec summit. The only thing the world knows currently is the ongoing mutual efforts to warm bilateral ties, which have been frozen for the past seven years. Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wang Yi was in Washington recently to meet US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to find ways to ameliorate their relationship. Most importantly, a better and more conducive atmosphere is needed for China to attend the Apec summit. It seems that the White House is trying to salvage the sinking ship due to a myriad of domestic issues. It can do so if the host can persuade the leader of the world's second-largest economy to take part in San Francisco. Otherwise, the meeting will be dead in the water.

It is worth remembering that during last year's summit in Thailand, the host had to use its diplomatic skills, above all, its existing goodwill, at both regional and international levels to put together the leaders' statement at the end of their meeting. Nobody thought at first that this would be possible, given the diverse positions and high level of hostility among the major economies. The leaders' statement was almost aborted at the last minute due to some interventions. It took Thai diplomatic brinksmanship and creativity to remove the last-minute hurdle before the statement was released. However, throughout the American-led process this year, the atmosphere has not been at all friendly, with the result that there have been no ministerial statements so far.

In the next few days, the US will show reveal how the Apec gathering will play out. Indeed, with Mr Xi's absence, the meeting will simply be a US-led gathering instead of one that brings together the common views of Asia-Pacific members. As the host, the US can issue a chairman's statement and put forward any word or phrase it desires without worrying about other views. A consensus among all economies is required for a common leaders' statement.

The Apec meeting in San Francisco will also serve as a weather vane as to whether the US is pivoting away from Asia. The Russia-Ukraine war and the Israel-Hamas conflict have already shifted the White House's focus away from Asia. If the outcome of the upcoming summit turns out to be merely American showmanship, it will further dilute the US influence among the world's important economies. Therefore, it is in Washington's interests to have Mr Xi take part in the leaders' meeting and to provide a sense of belonging among the Asia-Pacific economic community.

Other economies also look forward to US-China detente, if it can be achieved in time and their subsequent cooperation within the Apec framework. As the previous Apec host, Thailand's stakes are high in further supporting its previous year's recommendations and implementations, especially those related to the Bangkok Goals on the Bio-Circular-Green (BCG) economic model. It is not an overstatement to say that the BCG has already become the legacy of Apec 2022. After all, this year's work programmes have been focusing on guiding and advancing Apec's sustainability work, including climate change mitigation, sustainable trade and investment, environmental conservation and waste management.

Although the Srettha government has discontinued some of the economic plans introduced by the previous government, it has continued with all action plans related to sustainability, inclusion and resilience building. Since the Pheu Thai-led government took power, Thailand's focus has been on economic growth via trade and investment as ways to navigate the Asia-Pacific region through ongoing global economic challenges.

Thailand still has other priorities, too. Last year, Thailand had already moved forward with the development of a multi-year work plan to re-establish a long-term framework for the Free Trade Area for Asia Pacific (FTAAP). In San Francisco, Thailand will push for capacity-building programmes aiming at narrowing the development gap among member economies to bridge digital gaps and encourage e-commerce.

As a free trade nation, Thailand is hoping that with US and China ties improving, the host will further advance dialogue on the framework. In this, Thailand will continue to support the advancement of land connectivity in the post-pandemic era, both inside the country and within the region. The Srettha government has already committed to the mega land-bridge project that will link the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand through parallel roads and railway networks. The new economic link will promote trade and investment.

Finally, given the proliferation of artificial intelligence in all facets of modern life, Thailand would like Apec members to take up issues related to AI governance and its operationalisation. In the coming days, AI governance will become one of the most important pillars to ensure that no country or entity can abuse its use, both in economic and non-economic matters.

Thailand hopes to see all leaders of the Apec economies in attendance. The host's success is essential to keep the US engaged in free trade, multilateral cooperation and sustainable development. Whatever form the new world order will actually evolve into in the coming months and years, nobody knows. What is known is the necessity of the involvement of all Asia-Pacific economies to unite the world to make it peaceful and more prosperous.

This opinion piece was written by ERIA's Senior Communications Advisor, Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn, and has been published in Bangkok Post. Click here to subscribe to the monthly newsletter.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are purely those of the authors and may not in any circumstances be regarded as stating an official position of the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia.

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