Chinese President Xi Jinping’s attendance at the Philippine-hosted Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Summit would serve as a “litmus test” to determine how he would address the overlapping claims to the South China Sea, with questions on China’s actions in the disputed waterway expected to be raised at the conference, a security expert told the Inquirer.
“Apec being an economic forum with its multilateral approach will not deviate from broader realities, either political or security, in the region. China will nevertheless not be spared from questions about its military might and continued artificial island-building in the South China Sea that have had almost occupied some islands claimed by the Philippines in the disputed West Philippine Sea,” Chester Cabalza of the National Defense College of the Philippines (NDCP) said in a statement sent via e-mail.
“Xi Jinping’s presence in the Apec Summit hosted by the Philippines will become a litmus test of his commitment on how to deal with complex issues like the South China Sea disputes,” Cabalza said.
He said the Apec Summit is an opportunity for Xi “to show China’s political stance among its neighbors in the Asia-Pacific despite brewing maritime disputes, as China takes a serious step to multilaterally engage with bigger or smaller economies in the region.”
President Aquino will host the Apec Economic Leaders Meeting (AELM) on Nov. 18 and 19, the culmination of the summit that promotes free trade in the Asia-Pacific region.
There is no word yet on whether or not Xi would be attending the AELM.
Malacañang has confirmed the attendance to the conference of US President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Cabalza said Xi’s presence to the Apec Summit “is much anticipated,” especially after his recent state visits to the United States and the United Kingdom.
“His presence will cement his position as a global leader in his commitment to foster global prosperity and security,” Cabalza said.
If Xi decides to skip the Apec Summit in Manila, Cabalza said this would reflect on China’s “unpreparedness to hold greater responsibility as a regional power.”
“It does show an asymmetry of relations after his successful visits to bigger and powerful countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, and his absence to the Apec Summit hosted by the Philippines will only escalate mistrust in the region,” he said.
“[Xi’s] absence might stain the sincerity of the Chinese leader to answer complex and multiple issues as a giant neighbor in the region. If China really wants to cement its presence and show benign power in the region, the Apec Summit is one the best forums to demonstrate its commitments as a respected regional power. Xi Jinping’s absence will certainly draw flak from the international community,” Cabalza said.
If Xi attends the Apec, he has “every right not to comment” on the South China Sea dispute, Cabalza said, but the Chinese leader should still issue “pronouncements to assure China’s continued efforts to elevate peace and security in the most dynamic and important region in the world—the Asia-Pacific, since regional security greatly impacts economic stability of the region.”
A bilateral or pull-aside meeting between him and Mr. Aquino at the Apec summit is also much awaited, similar to what the two leaders had last year when Beijing hosted the conference.
President Aquino is pushing for the full implementation of a code of conduct among all claimant countries in the South China Sea but with only seven months left in office, he might have to step down without seeing a code of conduct agreed by China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Aside from the Philippines and China, the other countries who have wrangled over territory in the South China Sea are Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.
China is laying claim to almost 90 percent of the South China Sea, a resource-rich and major sea-lane where $7 trillion in global trade passes, insisting on a so-called “historic right” using a “nine-dash line” demarcation.
The Philippines haled China to a UN arbitral tribunal questioning among several issues, the nine-dash line.
The court, based in The Hague, recently ruled that it had jurisdiction over the Philippines’ petition and set the hearings a few days after the Apec Summit.