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US Eyes APEC to Boost Commercial Ties, Despite Biden’s Absence

A woman walks past the venue of the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in Bangkok, Thailand, Nov. 15, 2022.
A woman walks past the venue of the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in Bangkok, Thailand, Nov. 15, 2022.

The United States is hoping to boost commercial ties with countries attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit this week, where 21 economies representing nearly half of global trade will discuss efforts to promote trade and sign investment deals.

This is the first time officials are attending in person since the coronavirus pandemic, and follows years of pandemic-depressed economic growth as well as rising trade tensions between the bloc’s two biggest trading partners, China and the U.S.

Here’s what to expect:

Post-pandemic tourism, green economies

Thai officials say the summit is aimed at facilitating trade and investment, resuming post-pandemic, cross-border travel, and introducing an inclusive APEC business travel card, a five-year pass for eligible business travelers to get up to 90-day stays in participating countries.

Thai officials are also promoting a package of new environmental goals called the bio-circular-green (BCG) economy, which they say uses science and technology to reduce waste, restore ecosystems, and conserve resources.

Countries in Asia have been relaxing COVID pandemic controls, but China in particular is maintaining zero-COVID policies that have severely depressed international business travel.

U.S. State Department senior official for APEC Matt Murray told VOA in a recent interview that the government of Thailand is “setting up a safe passage task force” to include vaccine interoperability certificates and information sharing, bringing health experts together to ensure a return to safe travel and tourism in the aftermath of the pandemic.

The Thai government has issued an order prohibiting public rallies at 20 areas in Bangkok during this week’s APEC meetings to prevent disruptions at the convention center and hotels where delegates will stay.

Special guests

On Friday, the newly appointed Saudi Arabian prime minister, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, will speak at APEC meetings in Bangkok, becoming the first top Saudi royal family member to visit Thailand since the two countries severed diplomatic ties more than three decades ago.

Thailand and Saudi Arabia will sign agreements to boost diplomatic and investment ties on the margins of APEC. The oil-rich country is considering Thailand as a crude oil storage hub for Southeast Asia, according to the Thai Chamber of Commerce.

Police standing guard as commuters on motorbikes stop at a traffic signal near the venue of the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Bangkok, Thailand, Nov. 15, 2022.
Police standing guard as commuters on motorbikes stop at a traffic signal near the venue of the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Bangkok, Thailand, Nov. 15, 2022.

“MBS’s visit to APEC is a welcome sign for the group’s multipolarity and vision of the world’s future economy,” said Thanet Aphornsuvan, a professor at Thailand’s Thammasat University. “For Thailand, normalized relations and trade with Saudi Arabia will greatly improve the oil situation.”

Leaders from two other non-APEC members — French President Emmanuel Macron and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen — were also invited to attend this week’s meetings as the bloc looks beyond the Asia Pacific region to tackle pressing issues such as a global energy crisis and supply chain disruption. Hun Sen tested positive for COVID-19 this week and may cancel his appearance at APEC.

Biden’s nonattendance

Vice President Kamala Harris is representing the U.S. in this week’s APEC Leaders’ Meeting. President Joe Biden is expected to return to Washington for his granddaughter’s wedding after the G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia.

“The president’s nonattendance at APEC is an unforced error,” said Matthew Goodman, senior vice president for economics at Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies during a recent event. “I think he should have found a way to be there for a few hours to reassure the region that he was committed, particularly as the U.S. is taking over the host role in 2023.”

Other analysts say Biden’s absence raises the question of APEC’s relevance and what some see as its waning role in regional trade liberalization.

“The real question is why the United States decided it wanted to host APEC in 2023 in the first place? If this is a meeting that President Biden could afford to miss in 2022, then how important is it for other leaders to show up at APEC in 2023?” asked Aaron Connelly who leads International Institute for Strategic Studies’ research on Southeast Asian foreign policy. He said Biden’s nonattendance is “a bit of a signal to APEC’s diminishing course.”

Connelly told VOA another factor is that the current Thai government's position on a wide range of issues is not in alignment with that of the U.S.

Thailand is one of the three APEC members (China, Thailand, Vietnam) that abstained from an October United Nations General Assembly vote condemning Russia’s attempts to annex four regions of Ukraine.

Thai officials say Chinese President Xi Jinping will attend the APEC Leaders’ Meeting and hold a bilateral with Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.

US to host APEC 2023

Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Trade Representative Katherine Tai and other senior officials from the Biden administration will attend this week’s meetings to “promote free, fair, and open trade and investment,” said the State Department.

Several U.S. cities have been selected to host APEC ministerial meetings in 2023, including Honolulu, Palm Springs, Detroit, and Seattle. This will be the first time the U.S. has hosted APEC since 2011.

Overshadowed by Russia’s war in Ukraine

While members are facing economic challenges, officials noted it cannot be business as usual because this year’s APEC meetings are taking place in the shadow of Russia’s war in Ukraine, and the resulting soaring food and energy prices. Russia is also an APEC member.

“Although we had convened eight ministerial meetings already this year, we weren't able to achieve a consensus joint statement because of diverging views on the wording of certain paragraphs in the draft of joint statements,” said Thani Thongphakdi, permanent secretary for foreign affairs for Thailand, during a recent press conference.

A Thai official said there will be no family photo, as several leaders — including Russian President Vladimir Putin — are not attending this week’s APEC Leaders Meeting.