California dispatch: APEC summit in San Francisco will address overlapping political, economic and legal issues Dispatches
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California dispatch: APEC summit in San Francisco will address overlapping political, economic and legal issues

Joshua Villanueva is a JURIST Assistant Editor and a 2L at UC Law San Francisco (formerly UC Hastings), He files this dispatch from San Francisco. 

Beginning this weekend, world leaders will gather in San Francisco for the 2023 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Week, the largest international event this vibrant city will have witnessed since the UN Charter was signed here in 1945. San Francisco holds the spotlight as the fourth-largest economic powerhouse in the US, nurturing strong connections with APEC member nations and enriching the summit with the depth and cultural significance of the city’s substantial Asian American community.

As the host of the APEC summit, the US stands poised to champion interconnection, innovation, and inclusivity. This focus aims to address common challenges impacting APEC economies: the recovery from Covid-19, fortifying supply chains, tackling food insecurity, and mitigating climate change.

Here’s a list of must-watch topics at APEC.

1. Climate Change

A year ago, Vice President Kamala Harris unveiled a groundbreaking proposal for energy transitions aimed at curbing carbon emissions within the power sector during a landmark address at the 2022 Leaders Meeting in Thailand. This proposal, rooted in international environmental law principles, highlighted the urgent need for coordinated global action to address climate change. Multiple countries across Southeast Asia recognize that they are among the most susceptible to the impacts of climate change. Many of them are highly motivated to collaborate on sustainable development, environmental preservation, and initiatives tackling climate change. APEC comes as California’s Governor Gavin Newsom scored a meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping two weeks ago to discuss subnational collaboration on tackling climate change. Observers should take a close look at the energy transition initiative as it reflects the urgency to address climate-related concerns, aligning with the core objectives of the summit.

2. Recent Geopolitical Complexities

The specter of great power tension between the US and China, alongside the fallout from the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the recent crisis in Israel, looms over the APEC 2023 landscape and US support for the rule of law. Although APEC primarily focuses on economic growth in the Asia-Pacific, the Russia-Ukraine conflict was a key topic in last year’s APEC summit due to Russia’s APEC membership. Given recent developments in Israel, there might be discussions about the Middle East situation at the APEC meetings.

Discussions on Gaza and Ukraine are expected but may lead to disagreements among APEC countries, including concerns about international law violations and human rights abuses. Although it is yet to be seen whether the Israel-Hamas war will be a significant negative factor in US-China relations, China has not taken major diplomatic steps in the conflict and has remained relatively cautious in its official statements. However, it has repeatedly advocated for a two-state solution and called for an immediate ceasefire in the UN Security Council. APEC’s focus on the Middle East is generally on promoting peace and stability due to China’s significant oil imports from the region, but the US might be able to convince APEC countries to issue more forward-leaning statements on the Israel-Hamas war just as it condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year during the APEC summit in Bangkok. If not, observers should expect a relatively bland statement due to differing views among member countries.

Malaysia and Indonesia, as Muslim-majority countries in Southeast Asia, have strong views on the Israel-Palestine conflict historically. Malaysia, in particular, has been critical of Israel’s settlements and has rejected US sanctions against Hamas. Both countries advocate a two-state solution, lack diplomatic relations with Israel, and oppose Israeli settlements in Palestine. Malaysia has been especially critical of Israel, but Anwar, its leader, has not made virulent anti-Semitic statements like his predecessor, Mahathir.

Indonesia aims to solve the Middle East crisis diplomatically and has called for a United Nations (UN) solution. However, they have also emphasized the root cause of the conflict as the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, which complicates matters.

Based on their statements, Malaysia will be less supportive of any statement related to the Israel-Palestine conflict, while Indonesia may be more open to diplomacy. The Biden administration may need to urge both countries to temper their language and consider Israel’s perspective, though it might be challenging to reach a consensus.

While Southeast Asian nations have published differing positions on the conflict, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has condemned acts of violence against civilians and called for an immediate end to violence, the creation of humanitarian corridors, and a negotiated two-state solution.

The Middle East conflict’s impact on the Indo-Pacific is uncertain but significant. It could divert US attention from issues like Ukraine and be an opportunity for China if they perceive US weakness. Regional allies may worry about US alignment with Israel, potentially affecting Indo-Pacific geopolitics.

3. US-China Relations

While the U.S.-China relationship remains tense in many areas, APEC provides an opportunity for both countries to engage in dialogue. It doesn’t create new expectations for future meetings, unlike state visits, which could require reciprocation. Both countries are interested in maintaining stable economic ties.

The US and China will come together with the primary goal of improving their lines of communication and minimizing misunderstandings. Both nations are acutely aware of the potential challenges that lie ahead in 2024, with a significant focus on events such as the Taiwan presidential elections and the ever-evolving South China Sea dispute, which have the potential to spark tensions in the region.

While APEC may not yield any groundbreaking agreements or major deliverables, this meeting presents an opportunity for incremental progress in various crucial areas. One of the key objectives is to foster greater cooperation in travel arrangements, facilitating smoother people-to-people ties, and enhancing cultural exchanges. Notably, China and San Francisco International Airport will resume nonstop flights starting on November 11, a positive step in restoring and strengthening US-China relations. Additionally, discussions on military matters will be paramount, with the aim of establishing channels for dialogue and crisis management, reducing the risk of accidental confrontations and differing legal interpretations of international law. The potential impact of US-China military-to-military dialogues resuming, with optimism regarding progress. The departure of Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu, who was previously sanctioned by the U.S., may facilitate higher-level engagement in military discussions.

From Beijing’s perspective, the summit is driven by tactical considerations. China’s focus is on critical areas, including Taiwan, technology constraints, and economic matters. While Beijing hopes to address its concerns during the summit, particularly regarding technology, it may face disappointment in this regard, since there is no US appetite to take it easy on China. Part of China’s strategy involves engaging with US tech businesses and investors to shape global perceptions of its economy.

4. Biden-Xi Meeting

After playing coy for months, China has agreed to a meeting between President Biden and President Xi during the APEC summit. “This is going to be an important diplomatic conversation,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said during a press briefing on October 31. This meeting marks Xi and Biden’s first meeting since the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia last November, where they resolved some contentious issues, yet international legal tensions resurfaced following the Chinese spy balloon incident in February. The Biden administration has pursued extensive diplomatic efforts, including visits by senior cabinet officials and climate envoy John Kerry to Beijing. While Beijing initially expressed uncertainty about the meeting, it has confirmed the meeting but stressed the need for both sides to navigate disruptions and overcome obstacles. “The ‘road to San Francisco’ will not be a smooth one, and it cannot be on ‘autopilot,’” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a statement on October 29.

The decision to hold a presidential summit between Xi and Biden within the framework of APEC is seen as more a result of practical considerations rather than a significant signal. It allows for a high-level meeting without the need for a full state visit, which would have been more complex politically. The focus on the bilateral meeting has somewhat overshadowed APEC’s original purpose. Some APEC members are concerned that their agenda is being sidelined by the US-China bilateral meeting. However, many countries in the region prefer a stable US-China relationship due to their deep economic ties with China. They would rather see a meeting like this occur within a multilateral context like APEC.

Rekindling US-China relations, including the personal relationship between Xi and Biden, will surely steal the spotlight. While they have a history of engagement, the focus of the meeting is on policy differences and national interests, and personal relationships may have limited influence. Observers should expect Biden to reiterate US commitment to a rules-based order and call out China for its violation of international law from trade to shipping to intellectual property just as he did last at last year’s ASEAN summit in Cambodia.

5. Seizing Opportunities in the Digital World

Leading up to San Francisco, the Biden administration set the groundwork during the initial APEC Senior Officials’ Meeting (SOM) held in Palm Springs, California for productive discussions on digital policy matters. To build on this positive start, it is expected the US will seize this momentum during future meetings, including SOM 2 and 3, the trade ministers’ meeting, and other gatherings to advance a practical digital agenda.

This is no surprise as APEC’s history of digital policies was shaped during previous US host years, particularly in 1993 and 2011. In 1993, the Internet was still in its early stages, and advances in tech were discussed at the summit. In contrast, 2011 marked a significant shift, with digital policies taking center stage in both APEC and broader U.S. trade policy in the Asia-Pacific. This era saw the launch of initiatives like the APEC Cross-Border Privacy Rules (CBPR) System and the e-commerce chapter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. APEC’s digital policy agenda has evolved over time, including the adoption of the APEC Internet and Digital Economy Roadmap. The question now is whether the Biden administration can use its hosting opportunity to make a lasting impact on APEC’s digital agenda for years to come.

Harmonizing digital trade rule of law will be a key US priority. In line with its goal to champion innovation, the US should push for a conducive regulatory environment that encourages businesses to invest in research and development. Harmonization helps drive technological advancements, economic growth, and competitiveness in the global digital economy. It promotes an ecosystem where businesses can focus on what they do best: innovating and creating solutions that benefit society.

Success at APEC often requires patience and the ability to look beyond the slow pace of progress and geopolitical challenges posed by China and Russia. By persistently working towards consensus among members, APEC can lay the groundwork for significant outcomes within and beyond the forum. Therefore, the United States should focus on achievable outcomes for this year while also considering digital policy initiatives that can shape the future. Given the policy conflicts between China and Russia and key APEC members like Australia, Japan, and the US, the priority should be identifying issues that can garner consensus approval from APEC members. The US should take this opportunity to ensure it contributes positively to the Asian-Pacific economic future.