The unusually rambunctious APEC summit that shuddered to an ill-tempered halt at the weekend proved one thing beyond any doubt: The US and China are intent on doing to the Indo-Pacific region in the 21st century what the US and the Soviet Union did to Europe in the last. Namely, use it as the primary battleground in a global turf war for power and influence.
The jousting superpowers — described by Papua New Guinean Prime Minister and APEC host Peter O’Neill as the “two big giants” in the room — managed to turn what is supposed to be a peaceable platform for advancing multilateral cooperation into a noisy reprise of Captain America versus the Evil Empire.
This is not what then-Australian prime minister Bob Hawke and treasurer Paul Keating had in mind when APEC was launched in Canberra in 1989.
On this showing at least, the forum’s 21 members, including Taiwan and Hong Kong, must decide whether they want to play Cold War 2.
Several have already taken sides, or are in the process of doing so, possibly without sufficient consideration.
By partnering with the US in planning a major military base on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, Australia signaled that its shares the hawkish view of US President Donald Trump’s administration — frankly insulting to Beijing — of the need to “contain” China.
Already on the US team is Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s rearming of his nation. Given Tokyo’s smouldering history of bilateral enmity, periodically rekindled for political purposes by Beijing, where else has it to go?
New Zealand can pretend it has its own, independent process, but when the chips are down, it does not.
Other, weaker actors worry about China’s behavior, but worry more about offending it. Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines fit this category.
One remarkable aspect of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) command performance in Port Moresby was his evident indifference to other leaders’ views.
The Global Times, a state mouthpiece, declared it was “no big deal” the summit ended without the customary joint communique. Apparently China objected to a reference in the text to “unfair trade practices.”
It shows just how guilty China’s president must feel that he assumed this phrase referred to him. (It did, of course.)
Accustomed to having his own way, Xi does appear to have been surprised by the resistance he encountered at the summit. It seems he was anticipating an easy win for Chinese soft power diplomacy and pecuniary influence-peddling, given the absence of Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Xi arrived early, bearing gifts, including US$4 billion for Papua New Guinea’s roadworks — this on top of US$1.3 billion in soft loans previously extended to various Pacific islands. However, when officials excluded non-Chinese media from Xi’s private mini-summit with selected leaders, they were taken aback by the ensuing row about freedom of the press — a concept foreign to Beijing.
More serious pushback was to follow, in the compact form of US Vice President Mike Pence.
Pence had already paraded his boss’ many China grievances at the preceding ASEAN summit in Singapore. Now he doubled down, publicly demanding China “change its ways” on trade, intellectual property and human rights, and mocking Xi’s prized “One Belt, One Road” multinational infrastructure initiative as a “debt trap” for the unwary.
Pence added insult to injury by suggesting Trump could impose yet higher, punitive tariffs on Chinese goods in January, and by holding a meeting with Taiwan’s representative — a very deliberate provocation.
All this closely followed inflammatory remarks by the US commander in the Pacific.
Speaking in Canada, US Admiral Phil Davidson accused China’s military of “a sustained campaign to intimidate other nations in the East and South China seas” by militarizing artificial islands.
China was constructing “a great wall of SAMs [surface-to-air missiles],” he said.
However, if Xi got more than he bargained for in Port Moresby, he can take solace from the fact that, tough talk aside, the US and its would-be allies as yet lack a coherent, joined-up plan to counter China’s growing sway in the Indo-Pacific region.
Unlike former US president Barack Obama, who “pivoted” to Asia, it is clearly not a priority for Trump. He snubbed both ASEAN and APEC, and preferred to go to Paris instead to argue with French President Emmanuel Macron.
America First nationalism, contempt for multilateral alliances and a whimsical, transactional policy approach are not the way to build a winning ideological and geopolitical strategy. Trump and his people appear intent on drawing a line; in Port Moresby they deliberately picked a fight with China, but do they have any real idea what comes next as China pushes ahead anyway, relentless, regardless, step by patient step?
Little wonder Xi was not too worried. So far, he is winning.
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