The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit, which took place on 10-11 November, has been one of the most prominent items on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s agenda.  Attended by heads of state and business leaders from 21 Pacific Rim countries, the summit attracts the attention of both journalists and pundits.  In addition to hosting the summit, China is serving as chair before passing the responsibility for the next summit on to the Philippines.

Image courtesy of U.S. Embassy The Hague, © 2014, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of U.S. Embassy The Hague, © 2014, some rights reserved.

The prominence of this summit and its attendees make it an excellent illustration of the foreign policy agenda of Xi Jinping. The actions of President Xi and other Chinese delegates at the conference provide a revealing glimpse into the foreign policy priorities of the Xi administration, as well as showing how the administration intends to resolve some of the challenges it faces.  Specifically, there are four areas which have been especially noticeable on the Chinese agenda.

Discussing Sino-Japanese Relations

A major landmark was met when Xi Jinping met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the APEC summit. Relations between the two countries have been abysmal in the past few years.  Historical animosities and grievances have been aggravated by the Abe administration; most visibly by Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorates the dead of World War II including those convicted of war crimes in Chinese territory.  These tensions have only been further strained by the territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands which lie between the two states.

The very fact that this meeting occurred testifies to a serious Japanese concession.  Before coming to an agreement only days before the APEC summit, Japan did not even admit that a territorial dispute existed with China.  The islands were regarded as indisputably Japanese, a stance which did little to accommodate Chinese sentiment on the matter.  The agreement also pledged to maintain a ‘relationship of mutual trust,’ which suggests that the two states will attempt to refrain from deliberately antagonizing each other—language that appears to be purposefully targeted towards preventing further visits to the Yasukuni shrine.

Perhaps the most important outcome of this agreement and the subsequent meeting was the creation of an as-of-yet unspecified mechanism for managing crisis circumstances. Tense situations such as the deliberate ramming of Japanese coast guard vessels by Chinese fishing ships or Japanese fighter jets buzzing the disputed islands have the potential to escalate into further conflict in the absence of such a mechanism.  So agreeing on procedures to mitigate such events can only be beneficial to the region’s security.

Exploring Evolving Sino-American Relations

The prominence of both countries in international politics means that the relationship between China and the United States is vital to both parties. US Secretary of State John Kerry is quoted as saying that the United States and China ‘do have the opportunity as two leading powers to find solutions to major challenges facing the world today.’  The circumstances surrounding the APEC summit illustrate this opportunity for cooperation.

For one thing, recent dialogue at the Chinese Communist Party’s Fourth Plenum in October suggests a newfound focus in Chinese foreign policy on international norms and laws.  This ‘rhetoric of rules’ is aimed at ensuring China’s acceptance as a responsible shareholder of the international system; a role which the United States has been hoping China would come to play.  Moreover, the recent agreement between China and Japan—the latter being a key American treaty ally—also contributes a warming of Sino-American relations.

This rapprochement allows for the discussion of more substantive issues. For one thing, China and the United States need to have a serious discussion on the role of the American military in the Asia-Pacific.  Such an open dialogue would go far in reducing tensions regarding the US military rebalance towards Asia.  The two countries can also focus on economic relations, such as a bilateral investment treaty, or the recently announced loosening of visa restrictions for some Chinese citizens in the United States.

Stalling Progress on the Trans-Pacific Partnership

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a US-led initiative for a regional free trade agreement spanning the Pacific Ocean. China, however, has expressed little interest in the agreement, preferring to pursue trade liberalization under its own terms.  Bilateral agreements in particular better allow China to leverage its economic clout against potential trading partners.

This is best illustrated by the free trade agreement announced at the APEC summit between China and South Korea.  China is already South Korea’s largest trading partner, and after tariffs are removed from the majority of cross-border trade, the market share of Chinese exports in Korea can only be expected to increase.  This announcement illustrates that China will continue to ignore the lure of the TPP as other trade arrangements  succeed in achieving China’s trade goals.

Blue Skies in Beijing

Residents in Beijing were treated to a rare sight over the weekend of the conference: blue skies.   Recognizing the problems associated with air quality, the Chinese government ordered the closing of factories upwind from Beijing in Hebei since the first of November. This shows that the Chinese government is cognizant that pollution is viewed as a serious problem overseas.  However, the fact that the closings of the factories are temporary also suggests that the Chinese government is not willing to expend much of its diplomatic capital in pursuit of economic goals.

The recent APEC summit provides insight into the foreign policy priorities of the Xi administration. China is focusing on relations with Japan and the US, while continuing to disregard the potential TPP while assigning low priority to environmental concerns. No doubt further insights will be produced as the summit concludes.