US-China fight for influence spills over at Apec summit

Leaders fail for first time in 29-year history of summit to issue joint communique

At the Apec conference, US vice-president Mike Pence pushed for a vision of Asia tethered to Washington through bilateral trading agreements. Photograph: Mark Schiefelbein/AP

At the Apec conference, US vice-president Mike Pence pushed for a vision of Asia tethered to Washington through bilateral trading agreements. Photograph: Mark Schiefelbein/AP

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Rivalry between the United States and China broke into the open at the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) meeting on Sunday, with leaders failing to issue a joint communique for the first time in the summit’s 29-year history.

The competition between Washington and Beijing to influence the economic and political structure of Asia played out in real time as diplomats sparred over the wording of a closing statement on Sunday.

Tensions spilled over into a spat between Rimbink Pato, Papua New Guinea’s foreign minister, and Chinese diplomats, when the latter arrived unannounced in a bid to persuade him to back their wording. Mr Pato refused to meet them and threatened to call security to evict them.

Peter O’Neill, Papua New Guinea’s prime minister, told reporters that the wording related to reform of the World Trade Organisation. The US has become increasingly frustrated with the WTO as China gains influence.

Apec foreign ministers also failed to come up with a communique after their session.

Mike Pence, the US vice-president who attended the event after US president Donald Trump snubbed the gathering, pushed for a vision of Asia tethered to Washington through bilateral trading agreements.

He warned developing nations such as Papua New Guinea against infrastructure projects that come with heavy debt strings. “Do not accept foreign debt that could compromise your sovereignty,” he said. “Protect your interests. Preserve your independence. And, just like America, always put your country first.”

“The United States deals openly, fairly. We do not offer a constricting belt or a one-way road,” he added, in a jab at China’s Belt and Road programme of infrastructure investment.

Naval base expansion

Mr Pence also announced on Saturday that the US would join Australia to expand a naval base on Papua New Guinea’s Manus island, solidifying Washington’s position as part of a quadrilateral security co-operation arrangement that includes Japan, Australia and India.

China wants to keep the existing international multilateral institutions built largely by western powers after the second World War but argues that it deserves a bigger role as its economy and global reach have expanded.

President Xi Jinping used his speech to depict China as a beacon of multilateralism, appealing to the value of arrangements such as the WTO. “Every age has its challenges. In and of themselves they are nothing to fear. The issue is how we address them,” he said.

Wang Xiaolong of the Chinese foreign ministry’s international economic department, said: “No one is trapped because of working with China. Not one country.” He added that the country was still on a “steep learning curve” in its international aid programme.

Asian countries have found themselves in the middle of the increasingly tense US-China spat. At the Asean meeting last week in Singapore, leaders of southeast Asian countries expressed disquiet that the organisation was being sidelined.

Both countries also alienated their hosts with their approach. Officials and journalists from Papua New Guinea fumed as Chinese officials excluded them from meetings with Mr Xi on Friday.

Mr Pence’s appeal to Christianity in Asia at the end of his Apec speech also caused many in his audience to cringe. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018

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