Pacific Rim leaders were striving to find common ground on the war in Ukraine and other dire threats to humankind in an annual meeting that began Friday at a heavily guarded venue in Thailand's capital.
The annual summit of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum is the last of three back-to-back meetings of world leaders in the region.
On Thursday, foreign and commerce ministers were completing their yearlong effort to form a consensus on an array of often-divisive issues.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he saw signs of a “convergence" in views about how to move forward in solving the world's problems.
Whether that might enable Thailand as host of the meetings to produce a final joint statement remained to be seen: consensus generally is required among the 21 APEC members, including Russia. None of the earlier APEC preparatory meetings this year issued statements due to disagreements over whether to mention the conflict.
But leaders of the Group of 20 did manage a show of unity when China and India, after months of refusing to condemn Russia’s war in Ukraine, did not stand in the way of the release of a statement by the world’s leading economies that harshly criticized Moscow.
“At G-20, we really welcomed that we could have a joint statement,” said Yasuhiro Tsukamoto, a Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesperson.
Asked about the prospects for a show of unity, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he did not want to “get ahead" of the talks.
But, “on issue after issue we’re seeing, as I said, a growing convergence among the major countries in the world," he told reporters after Thursday’s meetings.
The APEC meetings and earlier summits of the Group of 20 major economies on the Indonesian island resort of Bali and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Cambodia have brought together leaders who have had little opportunity to meet face-to-face since the pandemic began in 2020.
“It is such a relief for us to be able to go back to the conduct of business in the way that we know is most efficient and most productive,” Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, told a business conference held ahead of the APEC summit meetings. But he noted, “Dark clouds loom large if we are not to be prepared.”
The war in Ukraine has pushed food and energy prices sharply higher, disrupting supply chains and hindering the world's recovery from the pandemic.
“The global economy faces mounting downward pressure and growing risks of recession," Chinese President Xi Jinping said in written remarks distributed to the business conference.
The Chinese economy has slowed sharply under restrictions meant to quash COVID-19 outbreaks. Xi warned against a “new Cold War" and attempts to dismantle supply chains built over decades, and called for strengthened cooperation and progress in achieving APEC's vision of an open Asia-Pacific economy.
The threat of a coronavirus resurgence remains, with China reporting 23,276 new COVID-19 cases across the country on Thursday despite its costly and stringent “zero-COVID” policy. The southern metropolis of Guangzhou plans to build quarantine facilities with almost 250,000 beds to cope with outbreaks.
Xi stayed close to home throughout the pandemic, making his first trip outside China since it began only in September. But he has had a busy roster of meetings both in Bali and Bangkok, where much of the activity is on the sidelines of the summits.
Xi and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met Thursday for what Kishida told reporters was a “candid and detailed discussion.”
“Because we are neighbors, there are various problems between Japan and China," he said. But he added that “I think our talks today were a good start for us to pursue dialogue toward building constructive and stable Japan-China relations.”
Before the summit, Thai officials said they were hoping to steer APEC toward long-term solutions in various areas, including climate change, economic disruptions and faltering recoveries from the pandemic.
The APEC leaders meet formally in closed-door sessions on Friday and Saturday. For some, it will be at least the third such opportunity for face-to-face talks in the past two weeks. U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris is attending instead of President Joe Biden, who will be hosting his granddaughter’s wedding at the White House.
With both Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin absent, Xi is the star attendee in Bangkok.
Thailand hoped to have all members agree on a set of targets for meeting the challenges of climate change, promoting sustainable trade and investment and environmental goals,
The wording of any statement on Ukraine would be the “most challenging element of our negotiations," said Cherdchai Chaivaivid, director-general of Thailand’s Department of International Economic Affairs.
“I am cautiously optimistic that we should be able to reach a good level of consensus. The thing is, are we going to reach consensus on every single issue in the draft or not? That remains to be answered by all senior officials working around the clock during the next few days," Cherdchai said.
APEC members account for nearly four of every 10 people and almost half of world trade. Much of APEC's work is technical and incremental, carried out by senior officials and ministers, covering areas such as trade, tourism, forestry, health, food, security, small and medium-size enterprises and women’s empowerment.
Members also include Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.
As host, Thailand invited three special guests to the meeting: French President Emmanuel Macron; Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the prime minister of Saudi Arabia; and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was to represent ASEAN but will not attend after getting COVID-19.
The APEC summit venue, at downtown Bangkok’s main convention center, was cordoned off with some streets in the area completely closed to traffic. Rows of riot police stood guard behind barricades at a major intersection nearby, underscoring Thailand’s determination to ensure no disruptions.
In recent years, Bangkok has seen a wave of large-scale protests aimed both at the government and the powerful monarchy, though they have faded under the pressures of the pandemic and targeted arrests of key figures.
A small but noisy group of protesters scuffled briefly with police Thursday demanding to deliver a letter to leaders attending the summit. The demonstrators back various causes including the removal of Prime Minister Prayuth and the abolition of Thailand’s strict anti-royal defamation laws.