Events in Europe and the Mideast have garnered headlines in recent weeks, as the United Kingdom continues its lurch toward “Brexit” and America repositions armed forces. But turbulence in other parts of the world is also having a big impact on global affairs.
President Donald Trump was slated to travel to Santiago, Chile, Nov. 16-17 to join leaders from 20 other economies for the annual meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.
Founded in 1989, APEC is described by the U.S. State Department as “an informal forum in which member nations … discuss free trade and economic cooperation along the Pacific Rim. From the perspective of the United States, it has been a crucial institution for economic engagement within the region.”
But the host country, Chile, canceled the gathering days ago after experiencing the worst bout of public demonstrations in decades. More than a million protesters have taken to the streets in Santiago in recent weeks, with hundreds of stores looted and at least 20 people killed.
Slowing growth and rising inequality have fueled resentment against Chile’s center-right President Sebastian Piñera, whose cabinet reshuffling failed to address protesters’ concerns.
While APEC Summit meetings often are hum-drum affairs, noted as much for long speeches and even longer communiques as for any meaningful accomplishments, they also offer good opportunities for leaders to meet face-to-face to address tensions between member nations.
The ongoing U.S.-China trade war loomed large as a side issue in Santiago. Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping were scheduled to meet, possibly to sign a deal for a partial trade settlement. They’re now searching for another possible meeting venue. Any trade deal surely will garner big headlines, but it equally surely will fail to resolve the biggest stumbling blocks in U.S.-China trade relations.
Other APEC countries also have a big stake in how the U.S.-China conflict plays out. Closely intertwined with the world’s first- and second-largest economies, many of them are suffering trade and economic disruption from the dispute. Although other countries share our concerns with China’s trade practices, they nonetheless would like to see a return to predictability and stability in the trade realm.
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Leaders from Russia, Japan, and South Korea also were scheduled to attend the Santiago gathering. Predictability and stability are far from guaranteed in relations among those countries.
In a clear challenge to U.S. leadership in the Asian region, Russian and Chinese warplanes engaged in unprecedented joint exercises in July, drawing warning shots from South Korean air patrols. Those joint air exercises come as China has increased its naval assertiveness in the East and South China Seas, challenging other Asian countries’ territorial claims in mineral-rich waters and America’s role as a peacekeeper in the region.
South Korea and Japan are locked in their own battles over issues stemming from World War II and Japan’s pre-war occupation of Korea. The tensions have led to a growing conflict affecting trade, intelligence sharing, and defense cooperation. Such discord between two of America’s most stalwart allies in Asia will complicate efforts to resolve the festering issue of North Korean missiles and nuclear weapons, as well as to present a united front toward China.
One bright spot in the picture is a mini-trade deal between America and Japan, announced by Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in late September. The deal will put American beef, pork, and wheat exporters on the same footing as competitors in Australia, Canada, and Europe — helping them regain market share lost after Trump pulled America out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and after a European-Japanese trade agreement took effect.
Shortly before the now-canceled APEC summit in Chile, Thailand will host the East Asia Summit — an annual gathering of heads of state from 18 Asia-Pacific countries focusing on regional concerns, including an effort to develop a code of conduct for countries’ behavior in the South China Sea and a regional trade agreement that would exclude the U.S. but include China.
As he has in past years, Trump will skip this meeting, possibly sending a cabinet member rather than previous stand-in Vice President Mike Pence. America’s top-level absence at this gathering at a time of rising tensions won’t go unnoticed by our friends and competitors in the region.
While other events and hot spots in the world have attracted more attention in recent months, developments in the Asia-Pacific region pose a greater potential risk to geopolitical stability and to America’s leadership in the world.