Asia-Pacific leaders meet on Saturday for annual talks, hoping to present a united front amid a gloomy world economy but with team spirit frayed by increasingly hostile territorial rows.
The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit, which this year will be held in the Russian Far East port city of Vladivostok, is meant to build goodwill among the 21 members in their effort to break down trade barriers.
But it will open with Apec giants China, Japan and South Korea embroiled in various territorial disputes that have fanned intense nationalist flames, with US-Chinese relations also heating up over the South China Sea.
Apec members Vietnam and the Philippines accuse China of ramping up a campaign of intimidation to enforce its claims to virtually all of the South China Sea.
The United States has angered China by voicing its opinion in the disputes – calling for a code of conduct among nations involved and insisting that freedom of navigation in the strategic waterway is in its interest.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – who is standing in for President Barack Obama at Apec – is at the end of a sweeping Asian tour that has angered China, saying it is another example of American efforts to contain it.
“The United States – certainly I – am not going to shy away from standing up for our strategic interests, and in expressing clearly where we differ,” Clinton, speaking of US relations with China, told reporters on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Japanese prime minister Yoshihiko Noda said he would not hold official summit talks with President Hu Jintao of China nor South Korea’s Lee Myung-Bak amid flare-ups in separate disputes over long-contested islands.
China-Japan tensions in the East China Sea have steadily risen, spiking in the past week after Japanese media, citing government sources, said Tokyo had agreed to buy a contested group of islands from their Japanese landowners.
China responded by saying it would take all “necessary measures” to defend its claims to the Diaoyu islands, known in Japanese as the Senkaku chain.
A separate dispute over yet another group of islands claimed by both Japan and South Korea has added to the mix.
Events further afield are also set to take up valuable time in the two-day summit.
Clinton’s planned meeting on Saturday morning with Russian Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov is expected to focus on deep disagreements between the two nations on the bloodshed in Syria.
Russia is the main diplomatic and military supporter of President Bashar al-Assad, who has led a clampdown that activists say has killed more than 26,000 people, and has vetoed with China two UN draft resolutions on Syria.
Apec leaders insist territorial and other issues have little bearing on economic talks, and that trade progress will still be made.
They will jointly call for greater efforts to “support growth and foster financial stability and restore confidence”, according to a draft leaders’ statement that voices concern over the eurozone crisis.
It warns of mounting risks to the region from the events in Europe and pledges to work to stoke domestic demand to counter falling exports.
The assembled leaders are also expected approve a deal reached Thursday by their trade ministers to cut tariffs on dozens of “green” products in the Asia-Pacific to boost trade in the goods and help protect the environment.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government has poured $20 billion into reviving Vladivostok, Russia’s largest Pacific port, in hopes of turning it into an investment hub and promoting his nation’s Pacific ambitions.-By Dan Martin