The upcoming leaders' meeting in Bangkok among the 21 member economies of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) should be seen in conjunction with its preceding Asean-related summits in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh and the G20 summit in Bali, the Indonesian island resort. This one-two-three combination in three Southeast Asian countries over a ten-day period is supposed to showcase Asean's central role in the promotion of peace, security and prosperity in the region and the wider world. But as Asean's summit season gets underway in Cambodia, excitement and promise have given way to anxieties and apprehensions. While these summit talks are an extraordinary opportunity to tone down geopolitical temperatures and geoeconomic competition, they are likely to yield mixed results.
That these three summit events converge in Southeast Asia is a rare occurrence. Based on its rotational chairmanship, Asean annually hosts summits among member states and with major dialogue partners. Among them, the East Asia Summit is considered the preeminent one as it includes China, Russia and the United States, apart from Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. Apec leaders’ meetings have taken place in Southeast Asia about every other year — 14 out of 29 — since its inauguration in Australia in 1989. The summit stretch of ten days was designed to allow world leaders to attend these venues back-to-back in a first in-person gathering after the two-year Covid-19 pandemic hiatus.
Instead of maximising value from top-level dialogues to promote a better understanding in favour of peace and prosperity, the summits are overshadowed by the US-China geostrategic rivalry and Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine and consequent adverse effects from higher energy prices and broader economic doldrums. As a result, the buzz around these summits is all about who is going where or not attending at all, rather than critical issues of war and peace and of superpower conflict that need to be addressed. In any event, Russian President Vladimir Putin has reportedly decided not to come to any of these top meetings, while US President Joe Biden will join in Phnom Penh and Bali but not Bangkok, owing to his preference to attend his granddaughter’s wedding back home.
To be sure, there are common lower-hanging fruit that have featured in press statements and official documents, such as climate change, post-Covid recovery, digitalisation, resilient growth, sustainability, inclusivity and the like. Yet without agreement among top leaders, these common challenges cannot be tackled effectively. What needs to be done collectively is clear enough, but getting leaders and governments to make commitments when their positions are divergent and conflictual is a daunting proposition.
Although geopolitical turbulence is to blame for problematic summits this year, Asean’s lack of unity also shares responsibility. Known for its ability to convene global-level meetings, Asean’s existential challenge is its inability so far to do something about Myanmar’s escalating civil war following the military coup on Feb 21 last year. The Myanmar crisis has effectively reduced Asean’s grouping from ten to nine. No photo opportunities among world leaders can come across with dignity and respect if Myanmar junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is included. Notwithstanding her shortcomings, such as the unwillingness to groom younger leaders and strengthen and institutionalise the National League for Democracy political party, Aung San Suu Kyi was a photogenic standout in any global pecking order.
As Asean cannot get its house in order over Myanmar, the organisation’s convening authority of summit meetings is undermined. While the big issue among the major powers at these summits will be Russian aggression, the sticking point when it comes to Asean will be Myanmar, underpinned in both cases by the US-China geostrategic tensions and confrontation, including over the China-Taiwan issue.
For Thailand, Apec is being implemented as a patriotic duty as the host country. Public holidays around the Apec meetings have been declared, and roads and surroundings around the meeting venue have been spruced up. What the Apec member economies that include China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan need to do together is laid out in the Apec Business Advisory Council’s recommendations, ranging from post-pandemic reopening and climate change to renewable energy and promotion of micro, small and medium enterprises.
But the host’s priorities and prerogatives are elsewhere. It is telling that the Thai government has invited three guests, namely French President Emmanuel Macron, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammad bin Salman, and Asean Chair and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. France appears out of place at this Apec gathering, while Hun Sen’s presence is understandable because Cambodia was the last to join Asean well after Apec took off.
Thailand and Saudi Arabia have recently normalised bilateral relations after three decades of estrangement. The Saudi head of government will be accompanied by a large commercial delegation. It will be worth watching to see if renewable energy goals will take a back seat to fossil fuels deals that may be brokered during the meetings.
The highlights for the Thai host on Nov 18 are an official dinner between Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and President Xi Jinping, preceded by a royal audience with the attending leaders. The gala dinner in between has reportedly shifted to a day earlier in order to keep the Xi dinner and royal audience sacrosanct. The message the Thai host may be seen as sending is that other friends and partners are less important than these two events. For the US, it is worth considering whether Mr Biden’s no-show will be a missed opportunity. The Thai host would likely have arranged the Xi dinner differently if Mr Biden were in the mix.
It is now the third time Thailand has hosted Apec. When Bangkok received Apec leaders in 1992, the grouping looked like a promising trade liberalisation platform, further reinforced in the mid-1990s under the Bogor Goals for freer trade. When Thailand hosted the leaders’ meeting in 2003, Apec was used to coordinate responses in the US-led war on terror. In that year, Thailand was seen as an up-and-coming economy with a government that wanted to play a bold regional role. By 2022, Apec is a shadow of its trade-liberalising self, lacking leadership and being held hostage to geopolitical tensions and geoeconomic manoeuvres. These trends are likely to continue into next year when the US takes its turn as host.