BEIJING — The tensions were already high.
At a major international gathering in Papua New Guinea over the weekend, the United States wanted to end with a group statement emphasising free trade. China objected.
But instead of working out the disagreement through dialogue, Chinese officials barged uninvited into the office of the host country’s foreign minister demanding changes in the official communiqué.
China’s action marked a striking break with diplomatic decorum at a meeting that is normally used to promote cooperation among countries that ring the Pacific Ocean.
However, China blamed "excuses" for protectionism for lack of Apec agreement and hinted that the fiasco lies with the US.
Still, the dispute meant that the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, or Apec, forum held in Papua New Guinea and attended by vice-president Mike Pence and China’s leader Xi Jinping, failed to issue a joint document for the first time since 1989.
More important, analysts said, it signaled a new phase in relations between the two powers, with China showing its willingness to cast diplomacy aside in favour of a more aggressive posture as it challenges the US’ dominance in the region.
China’s more assertive approach comes as Mr Xi considers accepting an invitation from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, to visit the North. Such a trip could complicate stalled nuclear talks between the US and North Korea.
The way the two big powers vied openly in Papua New Guinea with money and military assets for advantage was reminiscent of how Washington and Moscow behaved during the Cold War, analysts said.
“China doesn’t care if it looks like a boor. If you are a tough guy, you don’t care what others think,” said Mr Hugh White, a former military strategist for the Australian government and author of “The China Choice.”
Such behaviour was only surprising because it had been more than 30 years since the world had witnessed such edginess, Mr White said.
In that era, tit-for-tat diplomacy was a leitmotif between the pre-Gorbachev leaders of the Soviet Union and Ronald Reagan. Such public snarling between Washington and Beijing is likely to become more common, he said.
The latest tensions — part of a heated trade war — boiled over on Saturday (Nov 17) when four Chinese officials barged into the office of the foreign minister of Papua New Guinea, Mr Rimbink Pato, according to a diplomat in the region and a US official involved in the drafting of the communiqué.
Security officials were summoned, and the Chinese left voluntarily. Police were then posted at the office to prevent further disruptions.
The US official said the Chinese had taken issue with two portions of the draft communiqué that Washington supported and other members embraced.
One paragraph said the Apec member economies agreed to fight against unfair trade practices. Another paragraph said that members of the group would work together to improve the “negotiating, monitoring and dispute settlement functions” of the World Trade Organization.
Negotiators had been working on the final communiqué for days, diplomats said, and the disputed material was not suddenly inserted into the text.
The diplomat from the region said the Chinese move was puzzling.
Professor Eswar Prasad, an economics expert at Cornell University, said, “China’s strident reaction to such innocuous language signals its leaders’ concern about being isolated by the US and other countries who may still create a unified front to take on unfair Chinese trading and economic practices.”
China seemed to dismiss the account that its officials burst into the foreign minister’s office as “rumour.” But Mr Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, hinted at the source of Chinese anger by saying that most Apec members opposed the practice of “economic bullying,” an apparent reference to the US’ actions.
Beijing’s aggressive posture might backfire on its plans to present itself as a rising power that brings countries together as the US looks increasingly inward.
“It is certain that China gained nothing by refusing a few words in the proposed draft when almost every other country accepted them,” said Prof Shi Yinhong, an international relations expert at Renmin University in Beijing. “We have seen this sort of situation generally since a few years ago.”
The Chinese may have also gone unceremoniously to the foreign office because they felt targeted, and isolated, by the Americans, and were seeking last-minute support, the diplomat from the region said.
By delegating Mr Pence to attend the Apec meeting, President Donald Trump dispatched the administration’s point person for its get-tough-on-China policy. Mr Pence was accompanied by the head of China policy at the National Security Council, Mr Matthew Pottinger, also a hardliner on China.
Mr Pence delivered a scorching speech last month that broadened the disagreements with China beyond trade to include Beijing’s allegedly predatory behaviour against its neighbours and its naval manoeuvres in the South China Sea. He pledged the US would “not stand down” in the face of China’s challenge.
In Papua New Guinea, Mr Pence continued his theme, criticising China’s global infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative, as a “constricting belt” and a “one-way road.”
The day before, Mr Xi had vigorously defended the project, which is considered among the Chinese elite to be the foreign policy effort in which the president is most invested.
“It does not exclude anyone,” Mr Xi said in his speech about the Belt and Road Initiative. “It is not an exclusive club closed to non-members, nor is it a trap as some people have labeled it.”
China may also have been rattled by the US decision to join hands with its major allies, Japan and Australia, to increase its economic development assistance to Papua New Guinea and to embark on redeveloping a naval port there at Manus Island.
Mr Xi arrived in Papua New Guinea two days ahead of the Apec meeting, for which China financed roads and a US$50 million (S$68.59 million) renovation of a convention centre. The Chinese leader stressed his nation’s largesse to Pacific island nations like Papua New Guinea.
But China is the third-largest donor to these countries, trailing Australia and New Zealand, said Mr Jonathan Pryke, an expert on the Pacific islands at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. The US was the fourth largest, sending most of its aid to the northern Pacific countries of Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, Mr Pryke said.
At the meeting, Mr Pence announced that the US would increase engagement in the region, pledging to join Australia and Japan in helping to bring electricity to 70 per cent of Papua New Guinea by 2030. (Only 13 per cent of the country currently has electricity.)
The US is also working with Australia to develop the deepwater port at Manus Island, which lies 1,700km south of the US territory of Guam.
Manus Island played an important role for the US Navy in the defeat of Japan during World War II. Now it could play a strategic role against China’s expansion in part because the port is big enough to hold large naval vessels and task groups, said Prof Peter Dean, a war studies expert at the University of Western Australia.
“If the Chinese were able to land this as a base instead of the United States and Australia, then it would have had significant strategic implications,” Prof Dean said.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
China hints US to blame for lack of Apec agreement
BEIJING — The failure of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit at the weekend to agree on a communique was down to certain countries "excusing" protectionism and trying to force their views on others, a senior Chinese diplomat said.
In comments carried on the Chinese Foreign Ministry's website late on Monday (Nov 19), the government's top diplomat State Councillor Wang Yi said the inability to reach a communique was "by no means accidental".
"It is mainly that individual economies insisted on imposing their own texts on other parties, excusing protectionism and unilateralism, and not accepting reasonable revisions from the Chinese and other parties," the ministry cited Mr Wang as saying, without naming any specific country.
"This practice caused dissatisfaction among many economies, including China, and it is obviously not in line with the consensus principle adhered to by Apec," he added.
The Apec summit in Port Moresby was one of open disagreement, led by disputes between the US and China over trade, security and which would be the better investment partner for the region.
The meeting failed for the first time to agree to a joint communique, against the backdrop of a bitter trade war between Beijing and Washington.
Mr Wang said consensus is where the value lies in Apec and its basic rule.
"It is in the joint interests of all parties and cannot be ignored and abandoned."
On Monday, China's Foreign Ministry said the United States, whose delegation at the summit was lead by vice-president Mike Pence, attended Apec in a "blaze of anger", and that China had not gone to "get into a boxing ring".
The angry rhetoric comes ahead of the next major international summit, the G20 in Argentina which starts at the end of the month, where US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet.
Mr Pence said on Saturday that the US will not back down from its trade dispute with China, and might even double its tariffs, unless Beijing bows to Washington demands.
Mr Trump has imposed tariffs on US$250 billion (S$342.96 billion) worth of Chinese imports to force concessions on a list of demands that would change the terms of trade between the two countries. China has responded with import tariffs on US goods.
Washington is demanding Beijing improve market access and intellectual property protections for US companies, cut industrial subsidies and slash a US$375 billion trade gap.