US-China rivalry takes Apec center stage
CANBERRA—On the official agenda, global free trade was the headline of the summit of the leaders of 21 member-economies of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in Manila this week. But the rivalry of the region’s superpowers—the United States and China—grabbed the focus of the tense discussions behind the scenes of the conference, which was ringed by a steel cordon of security measures designed to ensure the safety of the leaders and delegates in the wake of the slaughter of defenseless civilians in Paris last Nov. 13 by the Islamic State (IS).
The Apec summit participants issued a draft joint statement on the last day of the forum, on Thursday, declaring: “We strongly condemn these atrocities that demand a united voice from the global community. We, therefore, reaffirm our strong collective resolve to counter terrorism.”
But according to press reports from Manila, the Apec leaders, before arriving in Manila, were divided over whether to issue a statement on the terror attacks in Paris or to let each make his or her own statement. After discussing the matter behind closed doors over the weekend, they initially forged a compromise: a paragraph on terrorism to be added to the statement released at the end of the summit. There was a shared desire to call for bringing “to justice those who perpetrated the horrific developments in Paris last Friday,” Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told a press briefing.
The compromise paragraph came as a watered-down version of the draft joint statement. In the end, the joint statement turned out to be an economic document, not an expression of concern over the global security threat posed by the rampaging IS. The joint statement detailed innocuous “new actions for advancing an Asia-Pacific economic growth agenda that benefits everyone and the future generation”—an outlook that deludes the Asia-Pacific nations into a false sense of security from terrorist attacks mounted in any part of the globe, whether in Europe or in the Americas.
The Apec is strictly focused on trade; as pointed out by its secretariat, the Apec is “about economic matters and only economic matters.” However, security and geopolitical concerns—such as the territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the terrorist attacks in Paris—cannot be completely ignored or swept under the rug as these threaten to overshadow trade and economic issues.
Although the Philippines and China agreed not to raise the territorial disputes in the South China Sea during the summit, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Manila last week to meet with Del Rosario, according to officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs. The officials justified the meeting on the margins of the Apec forum, saying that Manila has “no control” over what the other economic leaders would be raising during the “Leaders’ Retreat”—a reference to the freewheeling discussions of the Apec leaders where they can raise issues.
Days before the summit, the United States challenged China’s claim over the South China Sea, where China has built seven artificial islands, by sending a US warship for a freedom-of-navigation patrol. The move angered Beijing but was welcomed by America’s allies, particularly the Philippines and Japan—two Apec members embroiled in separate maritime disputes with China.
Last week, before the Apec leaders converged in Manila, the United States defied China’s warnings and US B-52 bombers flew over the South China Sea, through which cargoes worth trillions of dollars are borne on ships each year. The Philippines agreed not to raise the territorial disputes at the Apec conference despite its disagreement with Beijing, but US President Barack Obama may yet choose do so, according to the US State Department.
This would certainly infuriate China, which has proclaimed territorial sovereignty over much of the sea through which the United States is pushing for freedom of navigation. The other countries exercising claims over portions of the sea are Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. The Philippines has been the boldest of these countries in challenging China, particularly through international legal action.
China was certain to dominate the stage at the Apec summit given its attempts to push a business partnership agreement as well as the possibility that disputes over territorial claims could emerge on the Apec agenda.
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