Asian countries assert themselves at APEC | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 13.11.2014
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Asian countries assert themselves at APEC

The APEC summit is over and the most important lesson is: from now on Asians want to solve their problems themselves - without the help of the West, says DW columnist Frank Sieren.

At no other APEC summit in the last twenty years has it been so apparent how much the world is in flux. The old certainties are no more. Traditional alliances are being questioned. All of them.

The world's leading politicians are still feeling their way through this new age. They are nervous and uncertain. This is particularly true of the Pacific states, because the reigning world power, the US, is sitting on one side of the ocean. Even the smallest of gestures can be significant, especially those that are unpremeditated.

When Putin lays a blanket over the shoulders of Xi Jinping's wife, he's saying that China and Russia are friends. Xi, on the other hand, doesn't want friendship. He'd rather do business. Most of all, he wants to show the West that its row with Putin doesn't concern him. For the third time in six months, Beijing has sealed comprehensive economic agreements with Moscow. Washington is not amused.

Japanese-Chinese thaw

APEC Gipfel Shinzo Abe und Xi Jinping 11.11.2014 Peking

Xi had no choice but to shake Abe's hand, but he kept it frosty

The Americans also have mixed feelings about Japan and China drawing closer. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is clearly keen on dialogue with Xi. But the price is high: Abe has to accept meeting Xi in Beijing. There, he approaches Xi with his hand outstretched. Xi has no alternative but to offer his hand too. The picture goes around the world, even if Xi sees to it that the exchange is frosty. The world sees how annoyed Xi is about Abe, while the Japanese prime minister stands there looking awkward. A proper talk does not come to pass.

Xi is able to dictate the course of this encounter because, in the long term, Abe can't afford the economic price of confrontation with Beijing. Japanese investments in China are down 40 percent. But moving closer to China also means moving away from Washington. And Japan is the closest ally the US has in Asia.

Prosperity trumps security

America's other close partner, South Korea, has also moved towards warmer relations with Beijing. The two countries sealed a bilateral trade agreement after just a year and half of negotiations. It's not so surprising - the US may be Seoul's most important military partner, but the Chinese are the most important trade partners. Real growth is more important than potential security.

Vietnam and China used the summit to step a little closer, too. Both countries have been at odds for months over territories in the South China Sea, which even led to anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam. Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang pushed for a normalization of relations and stressed that Chinese firms are very welcome in his country. But Vietnam is also a country that Washington is wooing.

APEC Gipfel Gruppenfoto 10.11.2014 Peking

Obama was demoted on the group photo

US no longer center stage - not even on the photo

Never before has a US president been made to feel quite as acutely that, although still important, the US is no longer the undisputed world power. Xi marched side by side with Obama to the traditional APEC family photo shoot but then left him standing there. On his left was Putin. On the right was Indonesian President Joko Widodo, representing the second largest APEC country in Asia.

On the way back, Xi chatted with Putin while Obama conversed with his South Korean colleague Park Geun-hye a few paces behind. The pack has caught up with the world power. Even the opulent motorcade that only an American president could really afford to take on a world tour was nixed by Chinese protocol.

Following China's proposal

So all in all it was no surprise that the 21 APEC countries agreed to the Chinese proposal for a Pacific free trade agreement and rejected the US one that excluded Russia and China. This came about despite Obama inviting all the friendly Asian nations - including the heads of state of Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam - to the US embassy ahead of the start of the official proceedings to push the plan. Obama's mission for this APEC meeting was also to win back lost favor. Many Asian partners were annoyed when Obama missed the last meeting at short notice due to more pressing matters at home - when the government faced shutdown over the debt ceiling.

But Obama was not really able to fulfill this mission either. Xi's message to him was much louder: "We are cooperating ever more closely with your friends - and doing good business with your enemies too."

Unable to buck the trend

Frank Sieren Kolumnist Handelsblatt Bestseller Autor China

Frank Sieren: he lives in China

Under these conditions it was going to be hard for Obama to score any points for the US. There is one trend that even the most powerful and skilled of American presidents could not turn around: Asian states do want to have close cooperation with the US, but they want to solve their problems among themselves. So there are mixed reactions when Obama says: "We want to see China successful. But, as they grow, we want them to be a partner in underwriting the international order, not undermining it."

The problem is that the international order that Obama was referring to was invented in the West and consolidated by western-imbued institutions. Xi countered a few months back: "It is the Asians who decide upon Asian concerns." This is more likely to get even China's worst enemies nodding in agreement. Even Prime Minister Abe has, over the past years, been known to react petulantly to American wishes. But China's neighbors are irritated by the way Beijing takes for granted that it should be preeminent within Asia. "Just as the US wants to dictate what the world does, China wants to dictate what Asia does," as one Philippine diplomat succinctly put it.

Beijing manages to smooth things with presents. By founding the Beijing-initiated Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Xi promised his neighbors massive financial help to build harbors, railways, and roads. For this bank alone, Beijing wants to make $50 billion (40 billion euros) available and in turn to make Asia less dependent on the West. It's not just China. Other economies with ambitious development plans want to end this imbalance too.

Obama's only victory

Obama made one gain at the China-US summit. Up till now, Beijing has refused to set a deadline to cap CO2 emissions. Obama was able to get Xi to commit to 2030. Even the official state media's reaction was mixed. Some are happy about improvements on the environmental front in the foreseeable future. Others fear it will put the brakes on economic development in some of China's remoter and less advanced regions.

Against this backdrop, the location of the meeting between Xi and Obama was symbolic. The two men did not meet, as is usual, in the Great Hall of the People, but rather in a room in the cordoned-off government district Zhongnanhai, the very place where in the 19th century the empress dowager Cixi removed all those who demanded reforms from power. The hidden message to Obama: This is what can happen if you ignore the signs of the times.

Frank Sieren has been living in China for 20 years.

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