Chinese leader Xi Jinping arrived in Bangkok on Thursday for the last of three global summits held over the past week in Asia – this time for a meeting where the leaders of the United States and Russia will both be absent.
That leaves Xi ready to attend a two-day meeting of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders in the Thai capital without having to face US President Joe Biden at an economic summit focused on a region at the heart of the US-China rivalry.
The expected absence of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Bangkok, as in Bali for the Group of 20 (G20) summit earlier this week, will also leave Xi unfettered by the prospect of meeting a counterpart he has described as a bosom friend who has become a. pariah in the West after his invasion of Ukraine.
Instead, Xi will be a key figure in a list of participants from a region where Washington and Beijing have long vied for influence, making him well-placed to present China’s economic vision as leaders gather to discuss issues such as inflation, climate change , growing foods. prices and energy insecurity, based on discussions at separate summits in Phnom Penh and Bali in recent days.
Xi laid out the vision in a written statement issued Thursday evening at a summit of top business leaders meeting alongside the APEC summit, denouncing “Cold War thinking, hegemony, unilateralism and protectionism” — echoing Beijing’s typical criticism of the U.S., without to mention it by name.
“The Asia Pacific region is no backyard and should not become an area of great power competition.” No attempt to wage a new Cold War will ever be allowed by the people or our time!” Xi said in the statement.
“Any attempt to disrupt or even tear apart industrial supply chains … will only lead Asia-Pacific economic cooperation to a dead end,” he said in a veiled reference to economic disconnection.
Xi enters the APEC summit, which officially begins on Friday, having already made diplomatic strides at the G20 summit in Bali earlier this week – where he aimed to make China an integral part of the global arena alongside the West after an absence. of the world stage.
The G20 marked Xi’s first major global summit since he broke the norm to seek a third term in China’s Communist Party last month, and the first time he has met multiple Group of Seven (G7) leaders together and face-to-face since the start of the pandemic. .
That meeting saw Xi holding apparently constructive talks and grinning in photos with leaders who have recently sounded the alarm about China as a global threat. He was also videotaped addressing Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with a smile.
While tensions with the West remain high, diplomacy has put Xi on strong footing heading into the next summit, where the Chinese leader is expected to address business leaders and continue his bilateral talks, including with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida .
“Xi’s application has been successful so far. The world has taken his third term for granted, and he is able to demonstrate that he can command both domestic and foreign audiences,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center in Washington.
“For APEC, China was going to be the center of attention with or without Biden and Putin. But without them, Xi has no equal in the room… It will be his show.
“An indirect message is also important in that it shows how the US and Russia are not as busy as China.”
But the United States has other ideas. While Biden flew back to the US on Wednesday to attend his grandson’s wedding, Vice President Kamala Harris will attend the APEC summit before traveling to the Philippines.
A senior White House official told reporters that Harris would address a meeting of business leaders on the sidelines of the summit, saying there was “no better partner” than the United States in the region.
The United States stepped up its economic rivalry with China last month by launching unprecedented measures from Washington to restrict sales of advanced chips and chip-making equipment in China – a move that is likely to have a knock-on effect on APEC member economies.
Earlier this year, Washington launched its Indo-Pacific Economic Framework – the economic centerpiece of Biden’s plan to engage the region where it competes with China – which includes a number of APEC member economies, but not China or Russia. The United States will host APEC next year.
Also at stake is how APEC leaders choose to deal with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
At the G20 meeting, attended by Biden and wealthy G7 leaders, the summit concluded with a joint statement strongly condemning the war in Ukraine. As at the G20, Russia will be represented by lower-level officials, with First Deputy Prime Minister Andrey Belousov speaking for Moscow in Bangkok, according to Russian state media.
While the economic fallout of the war in Ukraine will be high on the agenda, how or if the leaders involved choose to implicate Russia in that influence could affect the deals made since the summit.
And while Xi may retain power on the guest list, China’s economic woes in recent months have loomed over the region and are likely to be another area of focus. Late last month, the IMF listed China’s “sharp and atypical” economic slowdown as a key headwind facing the Asia-Pacific region, as it cut its growth forecasts by nearly a percentage point.
In his written statement to business leaders on Thursday – a day before Harris is due to address the same conference – Xi called for “opening up” of the regional economy and speeding up scientific and technological progress there.
“I hope all of you, as business leaders, will actively participate in China’s economic cooperation and reform, opening up and modernization,” he said.
But observers will also look to the Chinese leader for clarity on Beijing’s economic plan, especially as its borders – and supply chains – remain heavily affected by continued Covid-19 controls, despite easing policy last month. A A wide-ranging regulatory crackdown on its tech industry last year has also raised concerns.
“This is the big question mark on the minds of many of us,” former Thai foreign minister Kantathi Suphamongkhon told CNN, referring to how long China will maintain its zero-Covid policy and strict border controls, which have dragged on Thailand’s vital tourism industry. .
“It is important for (APEC) participants to talk to the Chinese president about this,” he said.