Asia-Pacific leaders tackle trade, sustainability in Bangkok

BANGKOK (AP) — The war in Ukraine, great power rivalry Asia, inflation and food and energy shortages are on the agenda as leaders prepare for the third back-to-back gathering this week, a Pacific-Rim summit taking place in a heavily guarded venue in Thailand’s capital.

Leaders from the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum will meet formally in closed-door sessions Friday and Saturday. For some, it will be at least the third such opportunity for face-to-face talks in the past two weeks. However, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris is attending instead of President Joe Biden, who will be hosting his granddaughter’s wedding at the White House.

APEC’s official mission is to promote regional economic integration. Most of the business conducted happens on the summit’s sidelines in meetings such as a planned meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

The two Asian powers have a legacy of frictions over Japan’s World War II aggression, territorial disputes and China’s growing military might. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Mao Ning, said the encounter would “carry great importance.”

Xi, Harris and French President Emmanuel Macron will also speak at a business conference, held just ahead of the summit meetings, that is mostly closed to media apart from outlets sponsoring the event.

The APEC meetings are being held in downtown Bangkok’s main convention center, which is cordoned off with some streets in the area completely closed to all traffic. Rows of riot police stood guard behind barbed wired barricades at a major intersection nearby, underscoring host Thailand’s determination to ensure the summit suffers no disruptions.

A small but noisy group of protesters scuffled briefly with police demanding to deliver a letter to leaders attending the summit. The demonstrators back various causes including demanding the removal of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and abolition of Thailand’s strict royal defamation laws.

In recent years, Bangkok has seen a wave of large-scale protests aimed both at the government and at the powerful monarchy, though they have faded under the pressures of the pandemic and targeted arrests of key figures.

Before the summit, Thai officials said they were hoping to steer APEC toward long-term solutions in various areas, including climate change, economic disruptions and faltering recoveries from the pandemic.

“The APEC meeting this year takes place amidst a dual jeopardy,” Don Pramudwinai, Thailand’s foreign minister, said in opening a meeting of foreign ministers and commerce ministers who were working on draft statements due to be issued after the summit. Apart from conflicts, “the world is staring at hyperinflation married to recession, a broken supply chain and scarcity and climate calamities.”

Apparently alluding to Russia and recent condemnation of its war on Ukraine, Don also said there was a growing “cancel mentality” that makes “any compromise appear impossible.”

U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in a tweet that the ministers had “reaffirmed the need to work together to promote balanced, inclusive, and sustainable growth in the Asia Pacific region.”

Thailand hoped to have all members agree on a set of targets for meeting the challenges of climate change, promoting sustainable trade and investment and environmental goals, said Cherdchai Chaivaivid, director-general of Thailand’s Department of International Economic Affairs.

The wording of any statement on Ukraine would be the “most challenging element of our negotiations,” he told reporters Tuesday after talks in the morning.

“I am cautiously optimistic that we should be able to reach a good level of consensus. The thing is, are we going to reach consensus on every single issue in the draft or not? That remains to be answered by all senior officials working around the clock during the next few days.”

APEC members account for nearly four of every 10 people and almost half of world trade. Its official mission is to promote regional economic integration, which means setting guidelines for long-term development of a free trade area. Most of its work is technical and incremental, carried out by senior officials and ministers, covering areas such as trade, tourism, forestry, health, food, security, small and medium-size enterprises and women’s empowerment.

Leaders from the 21 economies on both sides of the Pacific Ocean often take the opportunity to conduct bilateral talks and discuss side deals. The Latin American contingent comes from Chile, Mexico and Peru. Other members are Australia, Brunei, Canada, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been avoiding international forums where he would be showered with criticism over the invasion of Ukraine and will not attend.

That leaves Chinese leader Xi as the star attendee in Bangkok, where he also is making an official visit to Thailand just after obtaining a rare third term as top leader at a once-in-five years Communist Party congress.

Biden is giving ground to China in the competition for friends and influence in Southeast Asia by skipping the APEC meetings. But U.S. officials say Washington has demonstrated its seriousness in relations with the region through frequent visits by Cabinet members including Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and other key senior officials.

As host, Thailand invited three special guests to the meeting: the French president Macron; Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the prime minister of Saudi Arabia; and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was to represent the Association of Southeast Asian Nations but will not attend after getting COVID-19.

For Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the most welcome visitor may well be the Saudi leader, whose visit may help restore friendly relations they soured due to a theft of Saudi royal jewelry in 1989 and unsolved murders of Saudi diplomats in Bangkok.

The war in Ukraine is a challenge for APEC’s consensus-oriented efforts. None of the earlier APEC meetings this year issued statements due to disagreements over whether to mention the conflict.

Like Indonesia, which hosted the Group of 20 summit in Bali this week, and Cambodia, which hosted the ASEAN meetings, Thai officials have put the best possible face on the situation, contending that agreement on other points will allow APEC to move forward regardless.

Skeptics doubt the meeting, following two others, will accomplish much.

“This APEC is only a photo opportunity for leaders. Its agenda has drawn much less attention than the ASEAN summit and G-20,” Virot Ali, a political scientist at Thailand’s Thammasat University, told The Associated Press.

“I don’t think we will see any progress from APEC. The current geopolitics, trade war, COVID-19, and Russia-Ukraine war are the issues that people are paying more attention to and feeling more impact from,” he said.

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Associated Press journalists Elaine Kurtenbach, Grant Peck and Tassanee Vejpongsa contributed to this report.

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