Asia-Pacific leaders condemn war, renew calls for open trade

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Bangkok: Leaders from around the Asia-Pacific called for an end to Russia’s war on Ukraine and pledged to steer the region’s economies toward sustainable growth as they wrapped up summit meetings on Saturday.

Host Thailand garnered a diplomatic coup in managing to bridge divisions among the 21 members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum by saying that most members had condemned the war.

Russia is an APEC member, as is China, which generally has refrained from criticising Moscow.

The declaration issued by APEC leaders acknowledged differing views on the war and said the forum, which is devoted largely to promoting trade and closer economic ties, was not a venue for resolving such conflicts.

But it noted that the war and other security issues can “can have significant consequences for the global economy”.

The leaders’ statement said most members had strongly condemned the war in Ukraine, stressing that it is causing immense human suffering and worsening inflation, supply chain troubles, food insecurity and financial risks.

Like a statement issued by the Group of 20 leading economies in Bali, Indonesia, earlier this week, it echoed the wording of a March 2 United Nations General Assembly resolution that “deplores in the strongest terms the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine and demands its complete and unconditional withdrawal from the territory of Ukraine”.

The meetings Saturday wrapped up a flurry of meetings in Southeast Asian countries this week, events that gave leaders opportunities for face-to-face talks that have been rare in the past two years of pandemic precautions.

Much of the activity at such summits occurs on the sidelines and in the interludes before and after the formal meetings.

US Vice President Kamala Harris exchanged brief remarks with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Saturday before the final APEC meeting began, calling for both sides to keep lines of communication open.

Xi said he viewed a meeting earlier in the week with President Joe Biden as a step toward a “next stage” in ties between the two largest economies, according to a Chinese government summary of the meeting.

Relations have deteriorated recently amid friction over trade and technology, Chinese claims on the separately governed island of Taiwan, human rights and other issues. But Harris told Xi the US “does not seek confrontation or conflict with China”.

Harris received a “handover” in the form of a symbolic “chalom” bamboo basket from the APEC host, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.

The US will host next year’s summit in San Francisco, with preliminary meetings to be held in other cities throughout the year.

Though summit meetings are often sidetracked by other more urgent concerns, APEC’s long-term mission is promoting closer economic ties.

Prayuth opened Saturday’s meeting by urging the leaders to push ahead with APEC’s agenda of promoting free trade in the Pacific region.

“We have to give priority to turning this plan into action,” Prayuth said.

Security risks are not on the formal APEC agenda, but Prayuth said the North’s numerous recent missile launches were discussed and “everybody shares concern on that issue”.

On Friday, the US Vice President and leaders of Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea met separately on Friday to voice concerns about the North’s launch earlier in the day of an intercontinental ballistic missile that landed near Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido.

Both at APEC in Thailand and at the G-20 meeting in Indonesia, officials appear to have chosen to agree to disagree about the war, while voicing anguish over its deepening impact.

In both Bangkok and Bali, countries that have refused to condemn the invasion refrained from blocking the release of statements harshly criticising Moscow.

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, forestry, health, food, security, small- and medium-size enterprises and women’s empowerment.

The leaders’ declaration released on Saturday also called for promoting more use of clean energy and more secure, environmentally sustainable food systems, among an array of goals that also address illegal, unregulated and unauthorised fishing, illegal logging, marine waste, improvements to public health and better access to vaccinations.

Other APEC members include Brunei, Chile, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, Peru, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was to represent the Association of Southeast Asian Nations but did not attend after getting COVID-19.

The summit venue, at Bangkok’s main convention centre near a vast parkland, was cordoned off with some streets closed to traffic. Riot police stood guard behind barricades at major intersections to keep protesters well away.

On Friday, police clashed in another area of Bangkok with demonstrators who took the opportunity of the APEC meeting to renew calls for democratic reforms in Thailand and accuse the government of promoting policies to APEC that favour big business over ordinary people.

Police blocked them, sparking a violent confrontation with some protesters who tossed debris and other items at police, who then charged the crowd, shooting rubber bullets. Several people were injured and a number of arrests were made in the standoff, which lasted several hours.

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