Asia-Pacific Leaders Tackle Trade, Sustainability In Bangkok

BANGKOK (AP) -- The war in Ukraine, great power rivalries, inflation, climate change and fending off the pandemic are among the issues Pacific Rim leaders are tackling in their third back-to-back meeting in a week, this time at a heavily guarded venue in Thailand's capital, Bangkok.

The meeting of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum comes on the heels of summits of the Group of 20 major economies on the Indonesian island resort of Bali and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Cambodia. It brings together leaders who have had little opportunity to meet face-to-face since the pandemic began in 2020.

"It is such a relief for us to be able to go back to the conduct of business in the way that we know is most efficient and most productive," Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, told a business conference held ahead of the APEC summit meetings. But he noted, "Dark clouds loom large if we are not to be prepared."

The war in Ukraine has pushed food and energy prices sharply higher, disrupting supply chains and hindering the world's recovery from the pandemic. It's also a challenge for APEC's consensus-oriented efforts. None of the earlier APEC preparatory meetings this year issued statements due to disagreements over whether to mention the conflict.

"The global economy faces mounting downward pressure and growing risks of recession," Chinese President Xi Jinping said in written remarks distributed to the business conference.

Xi, whose own economy has slowed sharply under restrictions meant to quash COVID-19 outbreaks, warned against a "new Cold War" and attempts to dismantle supply chains built over decades, and called for strengthened cooperation and progress in achieving APEC's vision of an open Asia-Pacific economy.

The threat of a coronavirus resurgence remains, with China reporting 23,276 new COVID-19 cases across the country on Thursday despite its costly and stringent "zero-COVID" policy.

Xi, who stayed close to home throughout the global outbreak and made his first trip outside China since the start of the pandemic in September, has had a busy roster of meetings both in Bali and Bangkok.

The APEC leaders meet formally in closed-door sessions on Friday and Saturday. For some, it will be at least the third such opportunity for face-to-face talks in the past two weeks. U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris is attending instead of President Joe Biden, who will be hosting his granddaughter's wedding at the White House.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been avoiding international forums where he would be showered with criticism over the invasion of Ukraine and will not attend. With Biden absent, Xi is the star attendee in Bangkok, where he also is making an official visit to Thailand just after obtaining a rare third term as top leader at a once-in-five years Communist Party congress.

Most of the business conducted at an APEC summit happens on the sidelines, in meetings such as a one planned later Thursday between Xi and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

Before the summit, Thai officials said they were hoping to steer APEC toward long-term solutions in various areas, including climate change, economic disruptions and faltering recoveries from the pandemic.

Apart from the conflict in Ukraine, "the world is staring at hyperinflation married to recession, a broken supply chain and scarcity and climate calamities." Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said at a meeting of foreign ministers and commerce ministers who were working on draft statements due to be issued after the summit.

Thailand hoped to have all members agree on a set of targets for meeting the challenges of climate change, promoting sustainable trade and investment and environmental goals, said Cherdchai Chaivaivid, director-general of Thailand's Department of International Economic Affairs.

The wording of any statement on Ukraine would be the "most challenging element of our negotiations," he told reporters Tuesday after talks in the morning.

"I am cautiously optimistic that we should be able to reach a good level of consensus. The thing is, are we going to reach consensus on every single issue in the draft or not? That remains to be answered by all senior officials working around the clock during the next few days."

APEC members account for nearly four of every 10 people and almost half of world trade. Its official mission is to promote regional economic integration, which means setting guidelines for long-term development of a free trade area. Most of its work is technical and incremental, carried out by senior officials and ministers, covering areas such as trade, tourism, forestry, health, food, security, small and medium-size enterprises and women's empowerment.

Leaders from the 21 economies on both sides of the Pacific Ocean often take the opportunity to conduct bilateral talks and discuss side deals. The Latin American contingent comes from Chile, Mexico and Peru. Other members are Australia, Brunei, Canada, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam.

As host, Thailand invited three special guests to the meeting: French President Emmanuel Macron; Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the prime minister of Saudi Arabia; and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was to represent ASEAN but will not attend after getting COVID-19.

For Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the most welcome visitor may well be the Saudi leader, whose visit may help restore friendly relations that soured due to a theft of Saudi royal jewelry in 1989 and unsolved murders of Saudi diplomats in Bangkok.

As with Indonesia, which hosted the Group of 20 summit this week, and Cambodia, which hosted last week's ASEAN meetings, Thai officials have put the best possible face on the situation, contending that agreement on other points will allow APEC to move forward regardless.

The APEC summit venue, at downtown Bangkok's main convention center, is cordoned off with some streets in the area completely closed to traffic. Rows of riot police stood guard behind barricades at a major intersection nearby, underscoring Thailand's determination to ensure no disruptions.

A small but noisy group of protesters scuffled briefly with police demanding to deliver a letter to leaders attending the summit. The demonstrators back various causes including the removal of Prime Minister Prayuth and the abolition of Thailand's strict anti-royal defamation laws.

In recent years, Bangkok has seen a wave of large-scale protests aimed both at the government and the powerful monarchy, though they have faded under the pressures of the pandemic and targeted arrests of key figures.