Chinese leader Xi Jinping arrived in Bangkok Thursday for the last of three back-to-back international summits held over the past week in Asia – this time for a gathering where the leaders of the United States and Russia will both be absent.
That leaves Xi primed to enter the two-day Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ meeting in the Thai capital without needing to face US President Joe Biden at an economic summit focused on a region at the heart of the US-China contest.
The expected absence of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Bangkok, as in Bali, will also leave Xi unencumbered by the optics of meeting a counterpart he’s described as a bosom friend, who has become a pariah in the West following his invasion of Ukraine.
Instead, Xi will be a key figure among a list of participants from a region where Washington and Beijing have long vied for influence, leaving him well-placed to promote China’s economic vision as leaders gather to discuss issues including inflation, climate change, rising food prices and energy insecurity, building on discussions at separate summits in Phnom Penh and Bali in recent days.
Xi will enter the APEC leaders’ summit, which officially begins Friday, having already hit his diplomatic stride in the Group of 20 (G20) meeting in Bali earlier this week.
The G20 marked Xi’s first major international summit since he broke norms to claim a third term atop China’s Communist Party last month, and his first time meeting multiple Group of Seven (G7) leaders together and face-to-face since the start of the pandemic.
That meeting saw Xi holding seemingly constructive talks and grinning in photos with leaders who have recently raised alarms about China as a global threat. He was also captured in video footage chiding Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with a smile.
While tensions with the West remain acute, the diplomacy has placed Xi on a strong footing entering this next summit, where the Chinese leader is expected to address business leaders and continue his string of bilateral talks, including with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
“Xi’s outreach is successful so far. The world has accepted his third term by default, and he is able to demonstrate that he can command both domestic and foreign audiences,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Washington-based think tank Stimson Center.
“For APEC, China was going to be the center of attention with or without Biden and Putin. But without them, Xi has no peer in the room … It will be his show.
“The implied message is also important in that it illustrates how the US and Russia are not as engaged as China.”
But the US has other ideas. While Biden flew back to the US Wednesday to be at his granddaughter’s wedding, Vice President Kamala Harris will attend the APEC forum before traveling to the Philippines.
A senior White House official told reporters that Harris would address a meeting of business leaders happening alongside the summit and express there was “no better partner” than the US in the region.
Earlier this year, the US launched its Indo-Pacific Economic Framework – the economic centerpiece for Biden’s plan for engaging with the region as it competes with China – which includes a number of APEC member economies, but not China or Russia. The US will host APEC next year.
Also at stake is how APEC leaders choose to address Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
At the G20, with Biden and the wealthy G7 leaders in attendance, the summit concluded with a joint declaration strongly condemning the war in Ukraine. As at the G20, Russia will be represented by a lower-level official, with First Deputy Prime Minister Andrey Belousov speaking for Moscow in Bangkok, according to Russian state media.
While the economic fallout of the war in Ukraine will be high on the agenda, how or whether participating leaders choose to implicate Russia over those effects could impact any concluding agreements from the summit.
And while Xi may project power on the guest list, China’s domestic economic woes in recent months have loomed over the region and are likely to be another area of attention. Late last month, the IMF listed China’s “sharp and uncharacteristic” economic slowdown as a key headwind facing the Asia Pacific region, as its slashed it growth projections by nearly a percentage point.
In his expected statement to business leaders on Thursday – a day before Harris’ scheduled address – Xi is likely to present China as a reopening economy driving regional development.
But observers will also be looking to the Chinese leader for clarity on Beijing’s economic agenda, in particular as its borders – and supply chains – remain heavily impacted by ongoing Covid-19 controls, despite a policy easing last month.
“This is the big question mark on the minds of many of us,” former Thai Foreign Minister Kantathi Suphamongkhon told CNN, referring to how long China will maintain its zero-Covid policy and tight border controls, which have dragged on Thailand’s crucial tourism industry.
“It’s important for (APEC) participants to talk to the Chinese President about this,” he said.