The dialogue between Obama and Xi—which has not been limited to climate change—is forward-looking. Discords between the two countries remain—human rights, for example—but the APEC summit was able to expose and overcome them.
A synecdoche syndrome struck the latest Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum (APEC) summit, which attracted 21 heads of state to Beijing including representatives of Hong Kong and Taiwan. In fact, the part prevailed over the whole and the environmental agreement between China and the United States obscured the series of meetings and results the 26th edition of the summit achieved.
Barack Obama and Xi Jinping’s historic signing sealed a success that involved the organization, G2 leaders, and the entire Pacific community. Beijing had cleaned the skies, made the air breathable, and prohibited Halloween masks in the metro. It bet on ironclad control and the dedication of 800,000 volunteers. The facts, the international spotlight, and analysts rewarded it. APEC didn’t solve any of the multiple strategic problems squeezing the Pacific Ocean, but it indicated a promising method for discussing them.
Too much friction has emerged from the interminable postwar period in the Pacific. The Pax Americana has been crossed by so many tensions that they impede any kind of compromise. For some time, nationalism has married economic success and has pushed for the sharpening of tensions rather than their softening.
The agreement between Obama and Xi was therefore acute, forward-looking, and perhaps noble. For the first time, China has labored to reduce emission and has signed an agreement with another country that can control its progress. In any case, there was more going on at APEC. They approved the constitution for the Free Trade Area Asia Pacific (FTAAP), which was proposed by Beijing. It seems likely that the new free-trade area could swallow the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a US initiative facing its allies and excluding Russia and China. It’s hard to imagine a trade agreement that excludes the biggest trading partner in the world, moreover the host of the summit.
In addition, trade agreements were reached between China and the US regarding the exchange of advanced technologies. The former ceded on the rigidity of controls, while the latter reduced the security levels of exports. Beijing will attract improvements, and Washington will reap payments: he same logic governs the agreement to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 2030. In the words of Obama, the G2 is extending horizontally: “When the US and China are able to work together effectively, the entire world will benefit.”
Not least, APEC will be remembered for the handshake between Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping. It was cold, and teeth were clenched in both delegations. It was, in any case, better than could have been hoped after years of accusations, the absence of a relationship, and aerial surveillance of the islands contested by Japan and China.
Two conclusions emerge with force among the many expressed during the multilateral summit. The first is the affirmation of Xi’s leadership. He knew how to steer China toward the center stage and launch point at the first apex he presided over. He obtained tangible results and he avoided letting—still extremely strong— rivalries prevail. He proved that he is solidly at the helm of his party and he demonstrated the ability to effectively defend his country’s interests. It was neither easy nor a given.
The secretary of the CPC is an expression of its various souls, a synthesis of interests he is called to represent. In practice he is elected by mediation. He is, therefore, weak by birth, obligated to win the stripes to command in the political climate. He doesn’t lack opponents within his party nor overseas, but Xi seems to have conquered the scepter of command with facts.
In the end, the entire apex was—in its numerous meetings—crossed by candidness and pragmatism. The statements of principle—Obama’s on human rights was important—did not impede the agreements. More than mediating differences and producing an anemic final statement, the summit exposed them and simultaneously overcame them. No one is naïve enough to believe in an immediate solution, but the will to proceed without exacerbating tensions seems universal. Globalization isn’t just a cage or mirage, but also a method. It’s more promising to use fingers to grip a pen that signs agreements rather than to squeeze triggers.