This November, Beijing will host the APEC leader’s meeting, the annual gathering of government leaders from the 21 APEC members. China has not hosted the APEC leaders since 2001, when the summit was held in Shanghai. Accordingly, Beijing is taking full opportunity of its role as host to engage in various diplomatic efforts — what we can call “APEC diplomacy.”
For one thing, China’s position as APEC host allows it to invite government leaders from non-APEC countries to attend the festivities. Xi Jinping has already extended such invitations to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj. The invitations provide a major bilateral boost even beyond the normal exchange of top-level visits. China’s invitations to India and Mongolia demonstrate China’s support for these countries’ bids to join APEC — and both India and Mongolia take their bids for membership very seriously.
As Mongolian Foreign Minister Luvsanvandan Bold told officials at last year’s APEC Ministerial Meetings, Ulan Bator considers it “of vital importance for Mongolia to join APEC,” as the trade bloc accounts for just under 90 percent of Mongolia’s total trade. Likewise, for India, which has been trying to join APEC for 20 years, membership is crucial to fulfilling Modi’s goal of revitalizing India’s economy. By helping Mongolia and India achieve their own goals, China bolsters bilateral relations with two of its neighbors. Importantly, by supporting India and Mongolia’s bids, China can also stake a claim to being “APEC allies” with New Delhi and Ulan Bator, allowing it to forestall concerns that India in particular would work against Beijing’s interests in that forum.
The APEC meeting this November also offers unique opportunities for bilateral diplomacy between China and existing APEC members. U.S. President Barack Obama will be in Beijing for the summit, marking only his second trip to China since he assumed office (and it’s been five years since his last trip, which came in 2009). China and the U.S. are already discussing the possibility of an informal bilateral meeting between Xi and Obama after the APEC summit concludes. As my colleague Zach noted earlier today, such an informal meeting (in the vein of last year’s Sunnylands Summit) would fit with the preferences of U.S. officials. Senior State Department official Robert Wang talked about “how effective it is to actually have smaller meetings where you can actually talk about issues in a more personal way.”
This might be the U.S. preference, but it certainly isn’t China’s go-to option. Chinese leaders place a great premium on the pomp and circumstance that accompany official visits. In a now-infamous example, Beijing complained that the literal red carpet rolled out for Prime Minister Li Keqiang on his U.K. visit was too short. Given this emphasis on the symbolism of political ceremony, some in China were offended that Xi Jinping was not offered the option of a formal state visit during his trip to the U.S. last year. In 2006, Beijing was offended at the lack of pomp surrounding then-Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to the U.S — and that visit was far more formal than the Sunnylands Summit. Accordingly, at least some Beijing officials saw Washington’s insistence on an “informal summit” as a sign of disrespect. Viewed in this light, from the Chinese perspective, the promise of an “informal summit” with Obama might be less of an olive branch and more of a way of returning an old insult.
Wherever and however Xi and Obama do hold their summit, they will certainly meet. It’s far more questionable that Xi will personally meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who will be attending the APEC summit on behalf of Japan. Former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda visited China in July, where he pushed hard for a formal summit between Abe and Xi. China’s official response has been cold — Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang told reporters that China’s position on China-Japan relations “is consistent, clear and subject to no change.” Beijing has repeatedly called for Japan to “take concrete actions” to show its remorse for World War II atrocities, as well as to deal with present-day tensions stemming from the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute. As Abe’s government hasn’t significantly altered its position, Beijing would have to back down from its ban on high-level bilateral meetings to agree to a summit.
Despite this, there has been some optimism that an Abe-Xi meeting might happen. Japan’s Asahi Shimbun reported earlier this August that Fukuda’s visit to China had yielded “signs of rapprochement.” The paper speculated that a bilateral summit might be possible. Still, as neither side has shown signs of compromise thus far, it will be difficult for China or Japan to make the first move without being branded as “weak” by hardline domestic elements. In this case, it will take delicate diplomacy to even make a summit possible.
Finally, and perhaps most intriguingly, Taiwan’s government has floated the idea of a Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping meeting on the sidelines of the APEC meeting. Taiwan is a member of APEC under the name of “Chinese Taipei,” but to avoid political complications the island is traditionally represented at leaders’ meetings by a retired politician rather than a sitting president. Former Vice President and Premier Lien Chan attended on Taiwan’s behalf from 2008 to 2012, and former VP and Premier Vincent Siew took over last year. Taipei hopes to snag an historic invitation for its president to attend APEC, which would also involve the first-ever meeting between top Republic of China and People’s Republic of China leaders. With recent historic ministerial meetings taking place both in mainland China and on Taiwan, a full-on bilateral meeting between top leaders has never been more likely — but make no mistake, it remains far-fetched.
A Ma-Xi summit is far more unlikely than an Abe-Xi summit, even though Ma Ying-jeou’s administration has repeatedly indicated its interest. China does not want to make any moves that might be interpreted as legitimizing the ROC government, and inviting the ROC president to join other heads of state at an international meeting would send a dangerous signal. Plus, despite Ma’s interest, such a meeting would be hugely controversial in Taiwan as well, as many have deep reservations about the island’s increasingly close ties with the mainland.
When it comes to APEC diplomacy, Beijing has quite a full plate. Some of these meetings are already on the schedule, including talks with the leaders of India, Mongolia, and the United States. Beijing can choose how much emphasis and prestige to give each of these meetings. Other opportunities — for summits with Abe or even Ma — require careful risk-reward calculations from China. Will Xi opt for grand, even historic, ice-breaking gestures or will he trod a more conservative diplomatic path?