Asia-Pacific leaders yesterday called for unity in tackling a raft of economic challenges, as an annual summit began amid deep divisions over territorial disputes and other rows.
Summit host Russian President Vladimir Putin opened the two-day gathering of the APEC bloc in Vladivostok with a call for a renewed joint commitment to opening up regional trade.
“By getting together and lifting barriers, we encourage dynamic development of the entire Asia-Pacific region and the global economy in general. It is important to build bridges, not walls,” Putin told his fellow leaders.
The 21 members of the grouping, which accounts for nearly half of the world’s trade, meet every year to build goodwill in their effort to break down trade barriers, with the bloc’s rules decided by consensus.
However, this year’s summit began with APEC giants China, Japan and South Korea embroiled in various territorial disputes that have fanned intense nationalist flames, and with US-Chinese relations also tense over the South China Sea.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said he would not hold customary bilateral summit talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) nor South Korean President Lee Myung-bak because of Japan’s separate territorial disputes with those nations.
APEC members Vietnam and the Philippines have also spoken out strongly against China in the lead-up to APEC.
They have accused their more powerful neighbor of a campaign of intimidation to enforce its claims to virtually all of the South China Sea, parts of which they contest.
Speaking at a pre-summit business forum yesterday, Hu called for all countries to ensure the tensions did not escalate into conflicts.
“To maintain peace and stability as well as the sound momentum of economic growth in the Asia-Pacific is in the interests of all countries in the region. It is our shared responsibility,” Hu said.
Nevertheless, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Qin Gang (秦剛) later reaffirmed his country’s hardline stance against Japan over rival claims to the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) in the East China Sea, which are known as the Senkakus in Japan and are also claimed by Taiwan.
“[The] Japan side should face squarely the strong resolve and determination of the Chinese government and people to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Qin told reporters.
China has also been riled by US lobbying for a code of conduct for the South China Sea and insisting on freedom of navigation in the strategic waterway, which the US has declared in its national interests.
US Secretary of State Rodham Hillary Clinton said the US was determined to increase its economic and political footprint in the region.
“After an extended period in which the United States had to focus a great deal of attention and resources on regions and conflicts elsewhere, we are now making substantially increased investments in the Asia-Pacific,” she said.
APEC leaders have insisted they will still make progress in Vladivostok in opening up economies.
They will jointly call for greater efforts to “support growth and foster financial stability and restore confidence,” according to a draft of a leaders’ statement to be released at the end of the summit.
It warns of mounting risks to the region from the eurozone crisis in Europe and pledges to work to stoke domestic demand. The leaders will also approve a deal reached on Thursday by their trade ministers to cut tariffs on a list of dozens of “green” products in the Asia-Pacific to boost trade and help protect the environment.