Will Apec meet the moment? PM Lee off to attend high-stakes summit in San Francisco

Apec members make up around 40 per cent of the world’s population, 50 per cent of global trade and 60 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product.

Bhagyashree Garekar

Bhagyashree Garekar

The Straits Times


November 14, 2023

SAN FRANCISCO – Amid stalling global growth, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will join fellow leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum this week to discuss ways to revive trade, shore up supply chains and boost prospects for a sustainable and equitable future.

The annual meeting of the grouping’s 21 member economies will also feature several highly anticipated meetings on the sidelines, including one between United States President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, as they try to find common ground amid heightening geopolitical rivalry between their countries.

In the course of his six-day working visit from Monday, PM Lee will hold bilateral meetings with other leaders converging on San Francisco for the summit, said a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

The prime ministers of Australia, Japan and Malaysia as well as the presidents of Indonesia, the Philippines and South Korea are among the leaders attending the event.

In addition, PM Lee will meet California Governor Gavin Newsom, Alphabet chief executive Sundar Pichai, Apple CEO Tim Cook and other prominent corporate chieftains.

PM Lee will also launch Enterprise Singapore’s San Francisco Overseas Centre, meant to support a growing number of Singapore companies seeking a footing in the world’s largest economy, which is exhibiting surprisingly strong growth.

Another highlight of PM Lee’s trip will be a meeting with Singaporeans residing in the San Francisco Bay Area.

He will be accompanied by Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, and senior officials from the PMO, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Trade and Industry.

During his absence, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Lawrence Wong will be Acting Prime Minister, the PMO statement said.

Apec members make up around 40 per cent of the world’s population, 50 per cent of global trade and 60 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product.

The Nov 11 to 17 event kicked off with preparatory meetings between officials and ministers, before the finale – the Apec Economic Leaders’ Meeting on Thursday and Friday – during which a joint declaration is expected.

Here is a look at what to expect from the summit.

Will Biden and Xi break the ice?

Only modest progress is expected at what will be the most carefully choreographed encounter between the leaders of the world’s two most powerful economies on Wednesday.

It will be Mr Xi’s first visit to the US since 2017, and only the leaders’ second meeting during the Biden presidency. If they agree to restore military ties, inactive since Beijing suspended communication in 2022 to protest against then US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, it will count as an achievement. Other possibilities are beefing up travel and people-to-people ties.

The US is keen to get China’s help in resolving an opioid crisis that is a leading cause of death among young Americans. It says large quantities of fentanyl, a highly potent synthetic opioid with a potency 50 times that of heroin, are being produced in China and brought illegally to the US.

China, for its part, may seek some assurances from the US on Taiwan, given its anxieties surrounding the self-governed island’s presidential election in January.

US restrictions on technology transfer to China and tensions over Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China and East China seas will also be discussed.

Repairing the fractured ties is critical for the two superpowers, said Professor Yuen Yuen Ang, a Singaporean scholar of US-China relations.

“For Xi, easing tensions with the US is critical for China’s economic recovery,” said Prof Ang, the Alfred Chandler Chair of Political Economy at Johns Hopkins University.

“Biden also feels the need to recalibrate US policy towards China. His administration doesn’t want to be ‘bundled’ with loud, irrationally hawkish voices in Washington, and inadvertently let them set the official tone.

“It wants to articulate a vigilant and practical position on China,” she said.

Will there be a joint statement on Gaza?

Although not on the official agenda, the month-long Gaza conflict and the 20-month-old war in Ukraine are certain to be discussed among the Apec leaders.

Dr Victor Cha, senior vice-president for Asia at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said: “Whether there’ll be a statement on these issues remains to be seen. I’m sure it’s being worked on, but there are disagreements. What we might see is smaller groupings of like-minded countries that may make statements on this.”

Among others, Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and Indonesian President Joko Widodo might make clear their disagreement with Washington on its policy of backing Israel in the conflict and holding back from calling for a ceasefire.

China’s role may be critical, but it is yet to significantly exert its substantial influence on Iran, a key backer of Hamas. The Palestinian militant organisation, which runs Gaza, on Oct 7 launched an attack which took 1,200 Israeli lives. Palestinian officials say more than 11,000 Gaza residents have been killed in air and artillery strikes since Oct 7.

The US is likely to seek Chinese help in preventing the conflict from spiralling; their interests in the Middle East are not at cross purposes. As a large oil and gas buyer, China would prefer stability in the zone.

Will there be a major trade announcement?

The US shift away from championing trade liberalisation has caused a reaction in South-east Asia’s export-led economies, which look for better access to the US market. The question is whether a key Biden initiative under way can make up for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the ambitious free trade deal spiked by the Trump administration.

Mr Biden’s two-year-old project, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), is intended to anchor US economic engagement in the region, and it includes India, a non-Apec member.

Working on the sidelines of Apec, negotiators are rushing to announce progress on IPEF’s four pillars – trade (connected economy); supply chains (resilient economy); clean energy, decarbonisation and infrastructure (clean economy); as well as tax and anti-corruption (fair economy).

Announcements are expected on clean and fair economy, while agreement on the resilient component was reached in September. Trade is the major sticking point.

“We can expect an ‘early harvest’ agreement, with some areas substantially concluded, some registering substantial progress, and others requiring more work,” said veteran US trade negotiator Wendy Cutler.

“It has become more complicated for the US to achieve its goals in areas like labour and the environment without offering market access,” she added, referring to the resistance from many nations to US demands for labour and environmental standards in trade.

“As a result, the IPEF outcomes announced are likely to be more limited than initially expected when the talks were launched.”

Ms Cutler, vice-president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, also said the evolution of Apec was consistent with the changing environment.

“The economic challenges facing Apec economies today go way beyond the need for further trade and investment liberalisation, so it’s only natural that Apec’s focus has evolved over the years.”

The US emphasis in 2023 on connectivity, sustainability and resiliency go right to the heart of the challenges Apec economies are grappling with today, she noted. The deliverables are expected to be announced in each of these areas, she added.

The Apec leaders’ joint declaration, still under negotiation, will underscore the progress made on strategic and economic goals.

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