You talking to me?
There is no “I” in “APEC”. Yet the leaders of China and the United States are both using the Beijing round of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation this week to push their own agendas. Using the global stage to play domestic political games leaves room for dangerous mistakes.
President Barack Obama has delivered a slap in the face to his Chinese hosts by arranging to meet heads of state to discuss a trade pact which excludes China. The proposed twelve-member Trans-Pacific Partnership includes tough provisions on protecting intellectual property, and could create a channel for companies to sue governments, both of which suit the United States. More importantly, it’s one of the few things on which Obama has broad support from the opposition Republican Party, which now controls both houses of Congress.
TPP is too complex to be finalised in Beijing. But if Obama can show progress he has a better chance of winning timely Senate support for a fast-track negotiating authority that would let him put TPP to a yes-or-no vote, without amendments. Pursuing talks that could end with something concrete before Obama steps down in 2016 is sensible. China may be invited to join later. Beijing-based ambassador Max Baucus, a vigorous proponent of TPP, can play an important role presenting that deal.
President Xi Jinping’s self-serving agenda is similarly logical. China has capital, but still relatively little authority. Two new pan-regional development banks, and a $40 billion “Silk Road” fund, send a message that it can help poorer neighbours. Xi has promised “lasting and limitless” benefits for China’s trade and investment partners. He is also pushing a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP), which would steal TPP’s thunder and be less onerous for members.
Everyone knows that APEC’s harmony is largely a sham. Still, there is good reason to keep up the act. Goodwill among leaders increases the chances that disputes are resolved through words rather than weapons. China and Japan got the tone right last week when they agreed to co-operate despite their differences, but Obama’s lack of TPP tact and Xi’s triumphalism point in the other direction. When all sides are more interested in competing than collaborating, the world is a less stable place.