Apec summit shows China wants bigger regional role

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.

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