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The Apec fizzle

Editorial |

The worthies who had gathered at Papua New Guinea over the weekend have agreed to disagree. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit has failed, a collective failure that has been underlined by the inability to agree on a communique. This is said to be the first time in its history that a joint communique has been the casualty of the discord, primarily between the United States of America and China.

Which makes it pretty obvious that the region is still a long way away from globalisation and free trade. Cooperation has floundered on the rock of conflicting perceptions of trade and investment. It is a measure of the tension between the Big Powers that police were called in when Chinese officials reportedly barged into the office of Papua New Guinea’s foreign minister.

The diplomatic indiscretion has blighted the summit further still. The Chinese officials had tried to enter the minister’s office in a last minute attempt to draft a communique, but were denied entry. The tiny host country with its capital at Port Moresby ~ the venue of the meeting ~ can scarcely be blamed for the summit having come a cropper. It is not possible for a minister of the host country to negotiate solo, in effect to play to the Beijing gallery.

The muscle-flexing by China was, therefore, grossly misplaced. The incident has served to exacerbate the tension at the high table, where the fruitless jaw-jaw has been overshadowed by the Sino-American kerfuffle. The group can only hope that President Xi Jinping, who was present at the summit, will concur.

Markedly, neither President Trump nor President Putin attended the meeting, arguably driven by the presumption that it would be reduced to a fizzle. Of riveting concern at PNG was the trans-Pacific confrontation between the US and China, one that has acquired a new dimension with Donald Trump’s sanctions and also, of course, the coordinated response of the US and the Western powers to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

For all the grandstanding that greeted President Xi’s arrival, he stoked Western concern when he met Pacific island leaders to buttress his Belt and Road Initiative. That bilateral diplomacy, indeed a sideshow to the multilateral meeting, was promptly countered by the US and its allies ~ Japan, Australia and New Zealand ~ with a $1.7 billion plan to provide electricity and the Internet to PNG.

Small wonder that Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill, diagnosed (with tongue firmly in cheek) the failure of the 21 members of the Apec group ~ “You know the two big giants in the room.” As it turned out, the contentious issue between the “two big giants” was whether the umbrella entity, called the World Trade Organisation, and its possible reform should be mentioned in the Leaders’ Declaration. The flop underscores the economic rift.