SAN FRANCISCO: Pacific Rim leaders showed divisions over the wars in Ukraine and Gaza after a two-day summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum on Friday, although they pledged support for reform of the World Trade Organization.
Days of meetings involving APEC ministers and leaders were dominated by a summit on Wednesday between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping aimed at cooling tensions between the world's two largest economies, which have alarmed the region.
The 21 APEC members, which include Russia and Muslim-majority Indonesia and Malaysia, went into the meetings divided over Russia's war in Ukraine and the Hamas-Israel war in Gaza, and that is how they left them.
A statement issued by this year's APEC chair, the United States, echoed last year's APEC leaders' declaration in saying that "most" APEC members "strongly condemn aggression against Ukraine."
It said the leaders exchanged views on the Gaza crisis, with some objecting to language of the chair's statement in an accompanying "Golden Gate Declaration" covering economic issues "on the basis that they do not believe that APEC is a forum to discuss geopolitical issues."
Some APEC leaders shared the united messages of the Nov. 11 joint Arab-Islamic summit in Riyadh, the chair's statement said.
Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia in a joint statement said they were among the APEC leaders who supported the messages of the Riyadh summit, which had called for an immediate end to military operations in Gaza, rejecting Israel's justification of its actions against Palestinians as self-defence.
The three countries also called for an "immediate, durable and sustained" humanitarian truce, and for the unhindered provision of essential goods and services to civilians in Gaza.
'Free, open, fair investment environment'
The APEC leaders' declaration reaffirmed their determination "to deliver a free, open, fair, non-discriminatory, transparent, inclusive, and predictable trade and investment environment."
"We are committed to necessary reform of the WTO to improve all of its functions, including conducting discussions with a view to having a fully and well-functioning dispute settlement system accessible to all members by 2024," it said.
Despite the frictions over the Ukraine and Middle East wars, the Sino-US talks will have brought some relief to APEC members concerned by a worsening trajectory in the rivalry between the superpowers, which are also the world's largest economies.
The Biden-Xi summit brought agreements to resume military-to-military communications and work to curb fentanyl production, showing some tangible progress in the first face-to-face talks in a year between the two, but no major reset in their strategic rivalry.
Xi appeared to achieve his aims, earning US concessions in exchange for promises of cooperation, an easing of bilateral tensions that will allow more focus on economic growth, and a chance to woo foreign investors who increasingly shun China.
Biden, addressing the other APEC leaders on Friday, urged them to work together to ensure that artificial intelligence brings change for the better, rather than abusing workers or limiting potential.
The US-China signal
Biden used the APEC summit to highlight the strong US economy and its ties to other Pacific nations, even as his vision for greater regional cooperation to counter China's influence stumbled on the trade front over his bid to strengthen workers' rights.
The managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva, told Reuters the Biden-Xi meeting was a badly needed signal that the world needs to cooperate more and a positive sign for cooperation on global challenges, especially climate change.
He said he had informal interactions with Biden, US Vice President Kamala Harris and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the sidelines of APEC, but not with Xi.
As it competes with China for influence, Biden's administration has vowed to continue negotiating an ambitious Asia trade deal as part of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework it created as a forum for engagement after then-President Donald Trump quit a regional trade pact in 2017.
However, election-year pressures and resistance to tough commitments from some countries make a deal unlikely, trade experts and business groups say.