Kor Kian Beng, China Bureau Chief

Apec summit shows China wants bigger regional role

The Apec summit in Beijing may be remembered more for tangible outcomes such as the first steps taken towards a Pacific Rim trade pact, but its biggest legacy probably lies in being a stage for China to stake its intent to play a bigger leadership role in the region.

The unknown is whether China is going to do so by working within the existing international systems under US leadership or by challenging it from the outside.

The proof of China's intent is found in the summit's intangible outcomes such as President Xi Jinping's call for an "Asia-Pacific Dream" and his bilateral meetings with US President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Couched in the vision of a region enjoying stability and prosperity, the Asia-Pacific Dream is seen as an extension of Mr Xi's pet political slogan, the China Dream, which envisages a stronger and more confident China both domestically and abroad.

"China's development will bring huge opportunities and benefits to the Asia-Pacific and the world. We are willing to work with others to realise the Asia-Pacific Dream," he told 1,500 business leaders and corporate honchos at the Apec CEO summit on Sunday.

"As its national strength grows, China will be both capable and willing to provide more public goods for the Asia-Pacific and the world, especially new initiatives and visions for enhancing regional cooperation," he added.

The underlying tenet of the Asia-Pacific Dream is that China will be the dominant economic power in the region and that countries are better off tying their future more closely to the world's No. 2 economy, especially as its economic heft increases further.

In a way, the various initiatives launched or pushed by China in the lead-up to and at the summit of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) grouping serve to achieve his Asia-Pacific Dream by deepening economic and trade links with countries in the region.

They include the US$40 billion (S$51.6 billion) Silk Road Infrastructure Fund and the US$100 billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), both aimed at improving China's economic links and connectivity across Asia.

In a veiled pitch for China to take on a bigger role in the region alongside the United States, Mr Xi also touted the need for a new type of Asia-Pacific partnership that is based on mutual trust, inclusiveness and win-win cooperation, and moves away from a winner-takes-all mindset.

Mr Xi also tried to burnish China's leadership role by showing it could set aside strategic rivalry with the US and think more of the region's interests through its push for the proposed Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP). An Apec idea that has not quite taken off since its inception in 2004, the FTAAP received new impetus when China made it a top priority this year.

China's expressed aim is to resolve the overlapping side effects of existing trade liberalisation pacts and help deepen regional economic integration, though many believe its covert goal was to slow progress on the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which does not include China.

Mr Xi's Asia-Pacific Dream should also be viewed in the context of his recent foreign policy stances that reflect a systematic approach towards raising China's clout in the region.

At the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Mechanisms in Asia (Cica), a small Asian security forum held in Shanghai in May, he advocated the security concept of an "Asia for Asians" that frowns on the US network of security alliances with Asian states like Japan. The implied meaning is that China too can play the security guarantor role undertaken now by the US through the latter's network of security alliances.

Taken together, China's message at the Apec and Cica events is this: It is keen to undertake more responsibilities, both economic and security, in the region.

Some have thus called his Asia-Pacific Dream a counter to the US' pivot to the Asia-Pacific.

Analysts say it helps President Xi's geopolitical aspirations too that he managed tricky encounters well with foreign leaders locked in territorial disputes with China, especially by agreeing to meet Mr Abe and jointly pledging to improve their rocky bilateral ties for regional stability.

"China is projecting itself as the leader of Asia, and I think it made progress in selling this message - Xi shaking hands with Shinzo Abe and making the FTAAP proposal," Professor David Arase of Nanjing University told The Straits Times.

"These moves suggest that China is less belligerent and more inclusive than its recent behaviour would suggest."

Singapore-based analyst Malcolm Cook of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies said the Apec summit will likely be more important for China's ability to show itself as a committed regional leader able to make landmark deals with other Asia-Pacific powers. Its efforts "helped shift the regional focus from issues of conflict and contention with China to issues of common interest".

Also telling is Mr Xi's two days of meetings with Mr Obama from Tuesday, when the Apec summit ended, which proved surprisingly productive with cooperation pacts reached in areas such as climate change, military, trade and people-to-people interaction.

The outcomes gave substance to the "new model of major-power relationship" which aims to avoid conflict between an existing power and a rising power and was the sole major outcome at both leaders' first informal summit in California in June last year.

Renmin University analyst Wang Yiwei said at a recent talk ahead of the Sino-US summit that the "new type of major-power relationship" had not seen much progress since last year due to their differing approaches.

While Washington prefers to build on the relationship incrementally through practical cooperation, Beijing's preference was to first establish how it should be viewed - as an equal partner - before agreeing to cooperation.

The latest developments have given hope that both sides have now found a way to work together despite wide-ranging differences on issues, including cybersecurity and China's territorial disputes with neighbours.

In fact, Sino-US expert Zhao Suisheng of the University of Denver believes the outcomes of the Xi-Obama summit and the Apec summit both show a Washington that is prepared to share Asia-Pacific leadership with a China that is willing to undertake more responsibilities too. "I see the US willing to share leadership because it is no longer able to maintain its primacy in the region due to its many interests elsewhere. China may want to be the leading power in the region in the distant future but, for now, it is not keen to displace the US as American leadership is still needed."

Observers believe these show China is planning to work within the existing world order, though the AIIB initiative has sparked talk that it is trying to challenge US-backed institutions like the Asian Development Bank.

Peking University analyst Jia Qingguo said China sees itself as a beneficiary of the existing system under American leadership.

Prof Zhao said China's next move, however, may depend on whether the region, especially Washington, is willing to give Beijing a bigger say in the existing international systems.

"China faces a historical choice of whether it wants to work within the system or outside," he said. "But the world also faces a historical choice of whether it should let China play a constructive role within the systems or risk it taking a destabilising role outside."

Another major factor in whether China succeeds in playing a bigger role lies in its ability to juggle well the relationships with neighbouring states.

After all, China in the early 2000s also used economic diplomacy to deepen its sway in the region. But tensions with South-east Asian states emerged in recent years after it decided to take assertive actions over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

For China to maintain its momentum in the short run, it needs to treat the leaders it hosted in Beijing with the same honour at the back-to-back East Asia Summit and G-20 summit, said Prof Arase. Over the long term, it needs to prove the governance of new institutions like the AIIB can stand up to scrutiny, he added.

The Apec summit is proof of China's intent to play a leader's role in the region, which may be inevitable given its rising economic and military clout. It is also proof again that China can put on a good show, like it did with the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2010 Shanghai World Expo.

But now the show is over. The real work begins.

kianbeng@sph.com.sg