California dispatch: US-China relationship dominated APEC summit beset by multiple diplomatic, policy challenges Dispatches
APEC 2023
California dispatch: US-China relationship dominated APEC summit beset by multiple diplomatic, policy challenges

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. 

The recently-concluded Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ summit, originally designed to address economic challenges in the Asia-Pacific region, found itself overshadowed by the unfolding drama of the US-China relationship. As the host leader, US President Biden seized the opportunity to underscore the resilience of the robust US economy and its deep connections with other Pacific nations. However, his ambition for enhanced regional collaboration to counter China’s influence faced setbacks on the trade front, particularly in relation to his efforts to bolster workers’ rights.

APEC also found itself positioned at the crossroads of global conflicts and economic aspirations. Here, leaders were compelled to navigate a complex terrain, grappling with a spectrum of issues stretching from the turmoil in Ukraine to the longstanding challenges in Gaza.

Here are the top five things you need to know in the aftermath of the summit, which took place in San Francisco between November 11th and 17th.

  1. Biden-Xi meeting

The meeting created concrete outcomes and laid the foundation for future diplomatic endeavors. Agreements on military communication, fentanyl, climate change, and high-level meetings, though initial steps, held the promise of potential tension reduction. Although the meeting was not expected to create major breakthroughs, reinstating long-standing bilateral military engagements that were suspended since August of 2022, including the US-China Defense Policy Coordination Talks, agenda-setting defense meetings at the senior level, and the US-China Military Maritime Consultative Agreement meetings might succeed in preventing deterioration in bilateral ties and adhering as much as possible to international norms and the rule of law in managing military tensions and conflicts.

Although the US worked on building coalitions to counter China’s behavior in the Indo-Pacific, President Biden and President Xi committed to resuming talks between theater commanders which is a crucial step given rising concerns about incidents in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait. However, there are challenges ahead as Li Shangfu, US Defense Secretary Austin’s Chinese counterpart, was recently ousted, signaling potential obstacles to substantive military exchange and cooperation.

Another notable takeaway from the meeting was the agreement to control fentanyl production. China committed to regulating the export of components essential for manufacturing the opioid, a move anticipated to reduce drug trafficking into the US, according to President Biden. It’s worth noting that Beijing has previously made similar promises in 2016 with then-US President Barack Obama and in 2018 with then-US President Donald Trump, with limited follow-through on those commitments.

Indeed, there are still unresolved conflicts, with technology and tensions in the Taiwan Strait left unattended. Despite addressing the issue, the leaders seemed to be on different wavelengths. President Biden reiterated the US commitment to the “One China Policy” and urged restraint from China. In contrast, President Xi emphasized that the US should “halt arming Taiwan” and back China’s vision for peaceful reunification, which he deemed “inevitable.” This dialogue underscores an ongoing dynamic where both sides attribute the escalation of the Taiwan situation to the other, resulting in reactive responses rather than proactive resolutions.

The two leaders also discussed the potential and dangers of artificial intelligence against the backdrop of Silicon Valley tech leaders from Microsoft, OpenAI, Google, and Meta emphasizing the importance of US-China collaboration in the field. Although “the leaders affirmed the need to address the risks of advanced AI systems and improve AI safety through US-China government talks,” according to the White House readout of the meeting, they failed to to establish a platform to address the regulation of artificial intelligence in relation to autonomous weapons systems and nuclear arsenals. Beijing is cautious about limitations on its nuclear arsenal, while Washington remains firm on maintaining its nuclear stockpile, particularly given the military posturing of Pyongyang and Tehran.

President Biden also refused to ease export restrictions on advanced computer chips, a move contested by China citing impediments to its industrial aspirations. China seeks access to semiconductor materials for the development of advanced weaponry, surveillance tools, and AI systems. Despite Beijing’s request, President Biden reiterated the US position, emphasizing the continuation of sanctions on supplies that could potentially enhance Beijing’s military capabilities.

During a 34-minute speech at the Welcome Dinner, following his meeting with President Biden, President Xi renewed his three-point framework for the US-China relations.

The concept of “mutual respect” took center stage, outlining a pivotal priority. This principle underscores China’s acknowledgment and respect for the American system, with the US reciprocating by recognizing and respecting the “path of socialism with Chinese characteristics” led by the Communist Party of China (CCP).

A crucial foundation emerges in the form of “peaceful coexistence” as a baseline for both nations. The ultimate trajectory of US-China relations will depend on whether they are adversaries, locked in competition, or strategic partners navigating a complex terrain.

At the heart of the dialogue lies the concept of “win-win cooperation,” where discussions during the bilateral summit delve into specific examples of mutually beneficial collaboration. All of these efforts are yet to be seen in the coming months.

  1. Divided Perspectives on Global Conflicts

Divisions over pressing global conflicts were evident. The Ukraine and Gaza conflicts prompted divergent views among APEC nations. The challenge of achieving a unified stance on these complex issues underscored the diverse geopolitical landscapes of participating countries.

While the 2023 APEC Leaders’ Golden Gate Declaration remained notably silent on these conflicts, the Chair’s statement acknowledged that leaders had “exchanged views” on the ongoing crisis in Gaza and there was no emphasis on the role of international law in addressing Ukraine and Gaza. The Chair also noted that some APEC members objected to including the comments about Ukraine and Gaza because they “do not believe that APEC is a forum to discuss geopolitical issues.” This diplomatic acknowledgment hinted at the delicate balance APEC sought to maintain, navigating between economic collaboration and geopolitical realities.

In a joint statement, Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia endorsed the sentiments expressed at the Riyadh summit, advocating for an urgent cessation of military operations in Gaza, and dismissing Israel’s defense rationale for its actions against Palestinians. Additionally, the joint statement emphasized the immediate need for a lasting and consistent humanitarian truce, urging unhindered access for the delivery of essential goods and services to the civilian population in Gaza.

On Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Chair acknowledged that while there was no consensus, “most members strongly condemn” the aggression. “We note with deep concern the adverse impact of the war in Ukraine and stress that it is causing immense human suffering and exacerbating existing fragilities in the global economy.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin was absent from the gathering as he faces an international arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court. In lieu of President Putin, Russia was represented by Deputy Prime Minister Alexei Overchuk.

  1. Climate Change Consensus and Food Security

Climate change emerged as a point of agreement among APEC leaders during the weeklong summit. Prior to the presidential meeting, China and the US committed to revive a climate cooperation working group and pledged substantial advancements in renewable energy. Both leaders emphasized the necessity for the world’s two largest economies to collaborate in addressing climate change.

APEC Economic Leaders have committed to promoting and supporting endeavors aimed at tripling global renewable energy capacity by 2030. This commitment involves adhering to existing targets and policies while demonstrating a parallel commitment to other technologies with zero or low emissions, including abatement and removal technologies, in accordance with individual domestic circumstances.

Additionally, Energy Ministers have achieved consensus on the APEC Just Energy Transition Initiative. They have also given their endorsement to the Non-Binding Just Energy Transition Principles for APEC Cooperation. These principles are designed to facilitate clean energy transitions within the APEC region, fostering meaningful engagement from the workforce, private sector entities, investors, and communities in an equitable and inclusive manner. This initiative builds upon the La Serena Roadmap for Women and Inclusive Growth.

Acknowledging the pressing challenges of food insecurity and understanding the imperative for an ongoing shift toward sustainable and environmentally conscious solutions, APEC economies have concluded the Principles for Achieving Food Security Through Sustainable Agri-food Systems. This aims to promote agri-food systems that are more sustainable, inclusive, resilient, and reliable.

Beyond official discussions, climate and sustainable growth remained focal points for business executives gathered alongside APEC leaders. CEOs spanning various sectors and nations convened at the Sustainable Future Forum and engaged in conversations about fostering business prosperity while concurrently reducing carbon footprints.

  1. Inclusion and Resiliency in Trade

Another point of agreement among the APEC members was reaffirming 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.”

Towards the end of the APEC summit, the prime minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, voiced a stark reality: “The WTO Appellate Body remains paralyzed.” His call urged territories to unite on binding and enforceable dispute settlement reforms. The WTO’s appellate body has languished since the Trump administration disrupted the appointment of new judges, a policy President Joe Biden has upheld, prolonging the deadlock.

Looking ahead, the WTO’s 13th Ministerial Conference in the United Arab Emirates, scheduled for late February, stands as an informal but ambitious deadline for substantial reform efforts.

In a bid to fortify environmental sustainability, communication, and information gathering, the regions endorsed new trade and investment principles known as the San Francisco Principles on Integrating Inclusivity and Sustainability into Trade and Investment Policy. Although a non-binding cooperative agreement, these principles encountered resistance from China but ultimately allowed room for disagreement, recognizing that “the way to achieve economic inclusion and sustainability for each economy may differ depending on what our societies and what our economies look like.”

APEC member economies have united in the fight against corruption, endorsing a Framework for APEC Anti-Corruption Thematic Areas 2023-2026. This framework aims to enhance collaborative efforts across APEC to prevent and combat corruption in the region.

Additionally, APEC members have given their approval to the 2023 APEC Economic Policy Report on Structural Reform and an Enabling Environment for Inclusive, Resilient, and Sustainable Businesses. This report furnishes policymakers with recommendations to empower businesses, especially SMEs, to contribute to social goals. Furthermore, it aims to incentivize private sector investment in fostering inclusion, resilience, and sustainability.

Reflecting on the APEC summit, President Biden utilized the platform to engage with leaders from the Pacific Rim, emphasizing the vast trade and investment potential of the American economy in the region. The summit’s outcome leaves observers anticipating the unfolding narrative of global trade dynamics and the intricate web of diplomatic maneuvers as nations navigate the path to reform.

  1. Digital Agenda

Earlier this year, the US spearheaded the Digital Pacific Agenda to shape the rules, norms and standards governing the digital economy. While many of the details were hammered out before last week’s summit, the digital economy was an issue the US wanted to focus on as the host country.

The inaugural APEC Digital Month in August, hosted by the US in Seattle, drew together a multitude of experts for a series of engaging events, including workshops, roundtables, and dialogues on various digital topics. APEC’s endorsement of the Recommendations for Cloud Transformation aims to accelerate the adoption of cloud computing technologies in the region.

The US convened trade policy dialogues focused on fostering regulatory environments conducive to data flow and developing a worker-centric digital trade agenda. APEC Trade Ministers endorsed Principles for the Interoperability of E-Invoicing Systems, promoting digital technologies for streamlined trade and investment. Additionally, APEC economies embraced the Principles for Facilitating Access to Open Government Data, reinforcing cooperation to enhance access to public sector data.

Global trade dynamics and diplomatic maneuvers are set to unfold, shaping the trajectory of international relations in the months to come. Although there were positive momentum efforts such as collaborations on transnational and climate change issues, the official readouts signaled a cautious approach. While stability in relations was emphasized, the absence of firm commitments underscored the delicate nature of the current geopolitical climate. The US focused on managing bilateral competition and mitigating the risks of military escalation. In contrast, China sought foundational “pillars,” indicative of a desire for a stable and enduring foundation.

Looking forward, APEC members acknowledged the need for substantial work to fortify the relationship against future crises. The agreements and nature of the summit provide a snapshot of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.