Three Apec images
Three images from the past week may come to define the 2015 edition of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders’ Meeting, in global public opinion. For only the second time, the Philippines served as host to the largest economic bloc in the world; perhaps unaware of the difficulties ordinary Filipinos from Metro Manila and surrounding areas, especially Cavite, endured during a week of strict security checks and severe traffic restrictions, a casual reader or viewer of the news in another country may have simply thought the Philippines pulled off a diplomatic coup: getting the heads of government of the world’s largest economies (and main Pacific powers) to come to Manila at a time of heightened tensions in the South China Sea, sharpened fears over the consequences of climate change, and renewed global concern over terrorism.
It was touch and go at the start of the week, when Russian President Vladimir Putin and then Indonesian President Joko Widodo decided to send representatives in their stead. Putin’s invoking of domestic concerns was reasonable; the then-mysterious crash of the Russian airliner in Egypt had roiled Russian politics. Widodo’s was suspect, and should be rightly seen as a snub of its Philippine ally and Asean partner.
Twice before, US President Barack Obama had had to send a representative, too—despite having declared a policy shift and pursued the so-called pivot to Asia. Chinese President Xi Jinping, the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, whose brand of newly assertive nationalism threatens to turn the South China Sea into a Chinese lake, was reluctant to visit the Philippines; it took extraordinary diplomatic effort to guarantee his appearance.
But Obama and Xi did arrive, as did Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and even new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, making his first Apec appearance. It was enough; as a diplomatic initiative, the Philippines’ hosting of Apec 2015 was a success.
The first of the defining images actually materialized outside the Leaders’ Meeting—on the sidelines of the summit, on the day the Meeting began. It involved Obama, taking part in only his fifth Apec powwow, breaking protocol (and stolid Apec tradition). He gamely served as moderator of what turned out to be the liveliest panel during the Apec CEO Summit, a forum that traditionally precedes the Leaders’ Meeting itself. The panel included Alibaba founder Jack Ma and Filipino engineer and solar lamp inventor Aisa Mijeno. Obama came prepared, or very well briefed, and seemed to relish the chance to step back into a role he had inhabited fully for many years: professor.
The session showed a glimpse of what a high-level international conference can also be: a two-way conversation, instead of merely a top-down forum. Would that in the future other heads of government can also be encouraged to serve as moderators—that is, officials listening to what other people are saying, instead of officials acting as, well, officials, giving speeches and not taking questions.
The Obama session was also out of the ordinary for devoting much of its time to the vexing question of climate change and what the world needs to do about it.
The second of the defining images came right after Obama’s session, when Xi addressed the same audience—that is, an audience dominated by the presence of Filipinos. It must surely be the first, and, while not taking questions, Xi did tailor his remarks to the needs of his audience. He spoke, specifically, of the Pacific Ocean as a “common home”—a resonant metaphor and appeal. He did not address the issue of China’s assertive South China Sea claims in his remarks, but his measured words, his reference to an ancient Chinese philosopher, his repeated refrain of “Ladies and gentlemen, friends” all seemed to have struck a responsive chord in his audience. There may yet be hope for a peaceful, diplomatic, forward-looking resolution of the various maritime disputes in the area.
But the distance between hope and reality was captured, perhaps unwittingly, in the third of the defining images: Xi’s awkward walk down the red carpet of the Philippine International Convention Center, all but ignored by Mr. Aquino and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who were engrossed in an animated conversation. Agence France-Presse timed it at four minutes and seven seconds, but it might as well have been eternity.
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