Large multilateral meetings are often derided as talk shops or expensive photo opportunities, where leaders exchange talking points and issue formulaic declarations and diplomatic boilerplate. They are feel-good encounters that bear little connection to the conduct of foreign relations. The importance of those rituals only becomes clear when they break down, as occurred last week at the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum summit: For the first time since the inauguration of the leaders meeting in 1993, the group could not agree on a communique.

According to Peter O’Neill, prime minister of Papua New Guinea and the meeting host and chair, the blame fell on the United States and China, “the two big giants in the room,” which are engaged in an increasingly bitter struggle for influence in the Asia Pacific — or Indo-Pacific — region and the fallout is spreading.

Reportedly, breakdown reflected differences over language about the World Trade Organization. A paragraph in the draft statement referred to “unfair trade practices” and to China, which angered Chinese negotiators. O’Neill noted that “APEC has got no charter over World Trade Organization. …. Those matters can be raised at the World Trade Organization.” The U.S. was also said to be angered by a call for the declaration to include “opposition to unilateralism.” Discussions got so heated that Chinese diplomats allegedly tried to break into the office of the Papua New Guinea foreign minister to insist on changes to the declaration, leaving only when security was called.

The failure to reach agreement on what is often viewed as boilerplate is indicative of the new thinking in Washington. U.S. President Donald Trump was elected to end “business as usual” and to expose the reality of international politics. Trump and his supporters believe that anodyne language is license to take advantage of the U.S. and they are determined to end the exploitation of their country under the guise of neutral principles such as “free and open trade.”

That was the message that U.S. Vice President Mike Pence hammered home during his Asia tour. In Tokyo, he called for a bilateral trade agreement with Japan and renewed efforts to counter Chinese regional influence. Pence repeated those themes in Singapore when he met Southeast Asian officials at the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations meetings. There he condemned the threat China poses to regional security by a growing military presence and relentless territorial expansion.

At the APEC meeting, divisions were clearly drawn. Pence continued to denounce China, reiterating complaints about its “trade practices, with tariffs and quotas, forced technology transfers, the theft of intellectual property.” He condemned its human rights practices and other threatening behaviors, as well as China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which Pence warned will overwhelm recipient countries with unsustainable debt.

Chinese President Xi Jinping rejected any such criticism. In his remarks, Xi said the world faces a choice between cooperation and confrontation in the face of rising protectionism and unilateralism. He defended the BRI, his signature initiative. While at the APEC gathering, he met the heads of state of seven Pacific island nations. The benefits of a good relationship were plain: China promised $4 billion to finance the first national road network in Papua New Guinea, and Xi opened one of the major roads that had been financed during his visit. Tonga was convinced: Sunday it signed up for the BRI and got a suspension on debt payments to Beijing.

The U.S. and like-minded nations, Japan among them, are waking up to their failures. If China is winning friends in the region, it is because those governments have been remiss in addressing regional concerns. China has recognized a funding shortfall and tried to meet it. Washington, Tokyo and other capitals are playing catch up: Those governments offered Papua New Guinea a $1.7 billion plan to deliver reliable electricity and the internet.

It is a start. The U.S. determination to focus on its concerns has created space for international leadership; Japan should step up. Some see this country playing a role as mediator, or bridge, between Washington and Beijing. That is too ambitious. Those two governments do not need Tokyo to facilitate their talks. Rather, Japan should stake out its own role. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was right to argue that “As the flag-bearer of free trade, Japan will take necessary steps to develop free and fair rules in multilateral, regional and bilateral relations.”

Papua New Guinea Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato expressed a sentiment common in the region when he said that his country did not need to pick sides. “Our foreign policy is to be friends of all, enemies of none.” No regional government wants to choose between Washington and Beijing. Nevertheless, the APEC breakdown makes clear the widening gap in visions of regional order. Choices will have to be made, and soon.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.