By CHALIDA EKVITTHAYAVECHNUKUL
BANGKOK (AP) — The war in Ukraine, great power rivalry in 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 history of tense relations, a legacy of Japan’s World War II aggression compounded by 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. We need not be reminded of the severe security conflicts that know not what victory looks like. Meanwhile, the world is staring at the hyper inflation married to recession, a broken supply chain and scarcity and climate calamities,” 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.
Apparently alluding to Russia and recent condemnation of its war on Ukraine, he 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 after the morning meeting that the ministers had “reaffirmed the need to work together to promote balanced, inclusive, and sustainable growth in the Asia Pacific region.”
APEC members account for nearly four of every 10 people and almost half of world trade.
“What we are going to do is to have all economies agree on a set of targets … climate change mitigation, sustainable trade and investment, environmental resource conservation and, of course, waste management,” said Cherdchai Chaivaivid, director-general of Thailand’s Department of International Economic Affairs.
APEC’s 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 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.
Associated Press journalists Grant Peck and Tassanee Vejpongsa contributed to this report.
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