APEC 2022: Xi Jinping takes center stage at Thailand summit with Biden and Putin absent

Bangkok, Thailand

Chinese leader Xi Jinping arrived in Bangkok on Thursday for the last of three consecutive international summits held over the past week in Asia, this time for a meeting where the leaders of the United States and Russia will be absent.

That leaves Xi poised to enter a two-day meeting of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders in the Thai capital without having to face US President Joe Biden at an economic summit focused on a region at the heart of the competition between the United States and China.

The expected absence of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Bangkok, as in Bali for the Group of 20 (G20) summit earlier this week, will also leave Xi unhindered from the prospect of meeting a counterpart he has described as a bosom friend, who has become a pariah in the West after his invasion of Ukraine.

Instead, Xi will be a key figure among a slate of participants from a region where Washington and Beijing have long vied for influence, leaving him well-placed to promote China’s economic vision as leaders meet to discuss issues such as inflation, climate change, rising food prices. energy prices and insecurity, based on discussions at separate summits in Phnom Penh and Bali in recent days.

Xi laid out that view in a written statement released Thursday evening to a convention of top business leaders gathered on the sidelines of the APEC summit, in which he denounced “Cold War mentality, hegemonism, unilateralism and protectionism,” making – he echoed Beijing’s typical criticism of the US, without citing him by name.

“The Asia Pacific is no one’s backyard and should not become an area for a great power contest. The people and our times will never allow any attempt at a new cold war!” Xi said in the statement.

“Any attempt to disrupt or even dismantle industrial supply chains … will only bring Asia Pacific economic cooperation to a dead end,” he said in a veiled reference to economic decoupling.

Xi heads into the APEC leaders’ summit, which officially begins on Friday, having made his diplomatic breakthrough at the G20 meeting in Bali earlier this week, where he aimed to turn China into integral part of a global arena alongside the Western powers after an absence. of the world stage.

The G20 marked Xi’s first major international summit since he broke the rules to seek a third term at the top of China’s Communist Party last month, and the first time he met with several leaders of the Group of Seven ( G7) together and face to face since the beginning of the pandemic. .

At that meeting, Xi held apparently constructive talks and smiled in photos with leaders who have recently raised alarms about China as a global threat. He was also captured on video footage berating Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with a smile.

While tensions with the West remain high, diplomacy has put Xi on a solid footing going into this upcoming summit, where the Chinese leader is expected to address business leaders and continue his series of bilateral talks , including with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

“Xi’s outreach is successful so far. The world has accepted his third term by default and he is able to demonstrate that he can dominate both domestic and foreign audiences,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the think tank Stimson Center in Washington.

“For APEC, China would be the center of attention with or without Biden and Putin. But without them, Xi has no peer in the room… It will be his show.

“The implicit message is also important because it illustrates how the US and Russia are not as engaged as China.”

But the US has other ideas. While Biden returned to the US on Wednesday to attend his granddaughter’s wedding, Vice President Kamala Harris will attend the APEC forum before traveling to the Philippines.

A senior White House official told reporters that Harris would address a meeting of business leaders on the sidelines of the summit and express that there was “no better partner” than the US in the region.

The US stepped up its economic competition with China last month with the launch of unprecedented measures from Washington to limit the sale of advanced chips and chip-making equipment to China, a move that is likely to have knock-on effects in APEC member economies.

Earlier this year, Washington launched its Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, the economic piece of Biden’s plan to engage with the region while competing with China, which includes several APEC member economies but not the China or Russia. The United States will host APEC next year.

Also at stake is how APEC leaders choose to address Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

At the G20, attended by Biden and the wealthy leaders of the G7, the summit concluded with a joint statement strongly condemning the war in Ukraine. As at the G20, Russia will be represented by a lower-level official, with First Deputy Prime Minister Andrey Belousov speaking for Moscow in Bangkok, according to Russian state media.

While the economic fallout from the war in Ukraine will be high on the agenda, how or whether participating leaders decide to engage Russia for those purposes could affect any agreement that concludes the summit.

And while Xi may project power on the guest list, China’s economic woes in recent months have risen in the region and are likely to be another area of ​​focus. Late last month, the IMF listed China’s “gross and uncharacteristic” economic slowdown as one of the key headwinds in the Asia Pacific region as it cut its growth projections by nearly a percentage point .

In his written statement to business leaders on Thursday – a day before Harris is scheduled to speak at the same conference – Xi called for “opening up” the regional economy and accelerating scientific and technological progress there.

“I hope that all of you, as business leaders, will actively engage in economic cooperation and China’s reform, opening up and modernization efforts,” he said.

But observers will also look to the Chinese leader for clarity on Beijing’s economic agenda, particularly as its borders and supply chains remain heavily affected by ongoing Covid-19 controls, despite a policy easing last month . A The sweeping regulatory crackdown on its tech industry last year has also caused concern.

“This is the big question mark in the minds of many of us,” former Thai Foreign Minister Kantathi Suphamongkhon told CNN, referring to how long China will maintain its zero-Covid policy and the strict border controls, which have dragged down Thailand’s crucial tourism industry. .

“It is important for the (APEC) participants to talk to the Chinese president about this,” he said.

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