U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, dressed in a traditional batik shirt, speaks with Chinese President Xi Jinping before the APEC Leaders’ Dinner
Last week, China played host to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, the first time the gathering has been held in China since 2001, and the second such summit for Chinese President Xi Jinping. The summit itself was carried out without a hitch, and at its closing event on Tuesday, the Chinese hosts put on an impressive fireworks display. While this display of firepower served as a less than subtle reminder of China’s impressive ability to put on important events with great fanfare, the signals China has been sending with regards to its plans for economic hegemony in the region are subtler.
In an address to the leaders of the countries participating in the summit, Xi spoke in a fashion typical of Chinese leaders, saying: “Clarify the goal, the direction, the road map. At an early date, let prospects become reality and make the two sides of the Pacific highly open and integrated.” While this quote itself is highly ambiguous, the actions taken by China at the summit itself speak for themselves.
On Monday of the summit, the Chinese announced a trade agreement with South Korea. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out, this deal may negatively impact Taiwan, over which China still claims sovereignty. China’s main economic rival, Japan, also stands to lose power to growing Chinese influence. Japan has recently stepped up its investment in Southeast Asia.
China’s recent actions signal a desire for Chinese dominance in the Western Pacific, a region that the U.S. has long exerted much influence over via its navy, the largest in the world.
President Obama has struck an outwardly amiable tone so far on this issue, saying, “We welcome the rise of a prosperous, peaceful, and stable China.” However, the relations between the two countries remain tense. As the US struggles to get back on stable economic footing, China’s economy continues to grow, albeit a slower rate than in years past. Some have even made the claim that this may be the last visit by a US President as a representative of the world’s most powerful economy.
While this claim is dubious, what is not so dubious is the fact that China should be at the very top of the President’s agenda. The U.S. must take steps to counter the East Asian giant’s growing regional influence and strengthen the US’s own economic well-being, primarily through the forging of trade agreements with other countries in the region. Recent developments, however, may work in the President’s favor in this regard. With the ascent of the Republican party to the Senate majority, President Obama may have an ally in likely-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has expressed support for giving the President power to make new trade agreements, something current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has refused to support.
Image Attribution: “Secretary Kerry Meets China’s President Xi at APEC Official Dinner” by East Asia and Pacific Media Hub U.S. Department of State, licensed under Public Domain