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America takes the APEC test

2013-10-08 11:31 China Daily Web Editor: qindexing

The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation was established by 12 members in 1989 to serve as a loose consultative forum to promote broad sectoral cooperation between regional economies. Today, it has grown into a forum of 21 Pacific Rim economies that are working together to lower trade barriers, promote free trade and pave the way for greater economic cooperation throughout the Asia-Pacific region. And numerous other economies are requesting to join the forum.

The annual gathering of APEC leaders has evolved into a global media event. This year's summit in Bali, Indonesia, drew roughly two dozen heads of state, 46 ministers, 5,000 economic leaders and 3,000 journalists. The figure does not include the thousands who attended numerous APEC events held before the summit.

The theme of this year's conclave was "Towards Resilience and Growth: Reshaping Priorities for the Global Economy", which was noteworthy for a number of reasons.

First, the sheer size of the forum was overwhelming. Many of the world's leaders participated in the summit, including Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The meeting provided them with an opportunity to discuss both regional issues and global affairs ranging from the civil war in Syria to the dispute over the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.

Moreover, the CEOs of some of the world's major corporations and several of the world's "thought leaders" attended the meetings and communicated with at least nine leaders in an interactive format. The participation of one world leader - US President Barack Obama should have sparked more interest and speculation than usual. However, Obama's decision to cancel the trip to Asia due to US government shutdown is widely regarded as a big blow to US diplomatic and trade efforts in Asia.

In 2010, Hillary Clinton, then US secretary of state, used the occasion of the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Hanoi to announce that Washington had junked its longstanding policy toward the dispute in the South China Sea and was ready to mediate to resolve it.

Many had expected Obama to drop a "bombshell" during the APEC summit. The worries seem not necessary now.

In fact, even if President Obama participate in the APEC summit, he would have sought to advance progress on the US-led trade initiative known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership economic pact. That was not a secret or surprise. Rather, the media had been carrying stories about the US' aim to hold a meeting of TPP leaders on the sidelines of the APEC forum for months. The only real surprise was expected to be some sort of breakthrough in negotiations. Given the domestic situation in Japan and some other countries, however, that was unlikely.

Even if he would visit the Philippines, it would be unlikely that President Obama and Filipino President Benigno Aquino would announce any new basing agreement to return US military forces to Subic Bay in the Philippines.

For a start, such a move would require a change in the Philippines Constitution. From the US perspective, military bases are expensive (and often unnecessary). Most importantly, it is likely that the White House and the Pentagon consider the idea unsound. After all, rather than promoting regional peace and stability, such a move could undermine it. Much more likely is a symbolic announcement that the two sides would remain allies and plan to continue to engage in occasional joint military exercises.

An agreement allowing US troops, aircraft and ships to temporarily pass through the Philippines is certainly possible. Besides, the sale of a small number of obsolete US ships cannot be ruled out.

In short, Obama didn't have any intention to use the APEC forum in Bali as a platform to announce any drastic changes or new initiatives in US foreign policy. And the cancellation of his Asia trip proved that US domestic issues always are the most important for any US president.

Like other leaders and delegations, the US president directed his energies toward the task at hand, that is, the attainment of a comprehensive response to the world's continuing economic and financial challenges. This might not be headline news or might not have made a splash in the so-called blogosphere, nevertheless it is an important undertaking.

The author is director of the Graduate Program in Global Studies in the Department of Political Science at Missouri State University.

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