US President Barack Obama is set to challenge China when Asia-Pacific leaders gather in Manila this week, speaking out on a territorial row and lobbying to set pro-American trade rules.
Chinese President Xi Jinping will also be in Manila for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, an annual event that is meant to forge unity on free trade within the region.
But this year’s meeting risks becoming entangled in various US-China power struggles, including over the South China Sea where Chinese island building in disputed waters has caused alarm in the United States and with its Asian allies.
The global menace of terrorism will also be an unwanted talking point after gunmen massacred more than 120 people in a series of coordinated attacks in Paris on Friday.
Philippine authorities had already undertaken their biggest security operation for the summit, which will gather leaders from 21 Pacific Rim economies on Wednesday and Thursday, but they vowed after the French carnage to do even more.
While China said it wanted the summit to focus only on trade, the French attacks and US attention on the South China Sea showed this was unrealistic, said Curtis S. Chin, a former US ambassador to the Manila-based Asian Development Bank.
“One cannot separate the economic and the non-economic in today’s interconnected world,” said Chin, now an Asia fellow of the Milken Institute, a non-partisan think-tank.
“That’s as true in the battle against ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) as in the search for a peaceful resolution to the many territorial disputes with China that haunt development in the South China Sea.”
China insists it has sovereign rights to nearly all of the sea, even waters approaching the coasts of its Asian neighbors.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have overlapping claims to some of the waters, which are home to some of the world’s most important shipping trade routes.
China’s island building in the Spratlys archipelago, which is close to the Philippines, prompted the US military to recently deploy a missile destroyer and B-52 bomber planes to the area.
China had insisted repeatedly in the lead-up to the summit that the South China Sea dispute was not relevant to the trade talks.
But US National Security Advisor Susan Rice said the dispute would be a “central issue” during Obama’s three-day trip to the Philippines starting on Tuesday, and a subsequent visit to Malaysia for another regional summit.
Rice also emphasized Obama would raise the issues of “maritime security” and “freedom of navigation,” terms commonly used when referring to the dispute.
The Philippines, which has challenged Chinese territorial claims before a United Nations tribunal, initially promised to respect that demand.
But in his first press conference as official Apec spokesperson on Friday, Philippine foreign ministry spokesman Charles Jose talked at length about China’s “aggressive” actions in the sea.
Jose also said that, while the issue was not on the official agenda, leaders may discuss it at their retreat, one of the summit’s key events where the delegates speak less formally.
Obama will also use both legs of his Asian trip to promote the Trans-Pacific Partnership mega-trade deal, which was signed last month by 12 Apec economies but excludes China.
On the sidelines of Apec, the leaders of the TPP nations will meet for the first time since the signing.
“TPP is central to our vision of the region’s future and our place in it,” Rice said.
“[It] is a critical step towards a high-standard free trade area in Asia and the Pacific, and our goal of revitalizing the open rules-based economic system that the US has led since World War II.”
China has said it will push on with its own effort to steer regional economic rules with a planned Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific.
“We need to actively work for the establishment of FTAAP,” Chinese vice commerce minister Wang Shouwen told a briefing in Beijing.
China sought to champion the FTAAP at last year’s Apec summit, which it hosted, and Wang promised a report would be released in Manila on its progress.
Apec members account for 57 percent of the global economy and 40 percent of the world’s population, with the diverse grouping including Papua New Guinea, Peru, Japan and Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indonesia’s Joko Widodo are the only major leaders of Apec nations who have said they will not attend.
In his briefing, Jose said the territorial dispute in the South China Sea should be resolved in a peaceful and rules-based way so as not to hurt trade and investments in the Asia-Pacific region.
“South China Sea is a very important trade route. [About] 40 to 60 percent of the global trade passes through the South China Sea… It is a very complex issue that the Apec can address,” Jose added.
Jose said the current tension in the South China Sea was undermining peace and stability in the region.
“For the past maybe two decades, all the countries in the region have benefited from the peaceful environment and stable environment. So, in our view, what is happening now in the South China Sea is causing instability and undermining peace and stability which could have an impact on the economic development and the economic prosperity of the countries in the region,” he said.
Jose said many East Asia Summit countries, many of them also part of the Apec, have already expressed concern over developments in the South China Sea, particularly their impact on the peace and stability in the region.
“Many countries have expressed support to our approach of using peaceful means of trying to resolve the dispute and also our approach of upholding the primacy of the rule of law and many countries have gone to the extent of expressing support for the arbitration case that we filed before the Arbitral Tribunal of UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea),” he added.
Jose said the arbitration was a universally recognized disputes settlement mechanism under international law including UNCLOS.
“It is a peaceful way, rules-based way to find an enduring solution to the overlapping maritime claims in the South China Sea,” he said.
While Apec has been recognized as an economic forum and South China Sea is not included in the agenda, Jose said the Philippines had no control over what the other economic leaders would be raising during the Apec Economic Leaders Retreat.
The Philippines is hosting the year-long Apec meetings, which will culminate with the Apec Economic Leaders’ Meeting on Nov. 18 to 19.
Jose added that during the recent visit in the country of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, there was no indication from the Chinese side that it would like to have a bilateral meeting with the Philippines during the Leaders’ meet.
The Philippines earlier filed an arbitration case in The Hague against China’s claim to almost the entire South China Sea which is also being claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei.
China has insisted on settling the dispute bilaterally but the court in The Netherlands has ruled that it has jurisdiction to hear some territorial claims in the contested waters. AFP, PNA
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