Beijing’s ‘Star Trek’ APEC Summit

It may look like a costume party, but as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation shindig draws to a close, nobody is having a good time.

11.11.14 6:00 PM ET

TOKYO—Imagine if you will, that this year’s APEC summit was set in the Star Trek Universe and China was the belligerent Klingon Empire; it’s not hard if you try. And things aren’t going so well for the United Federation of Planets.

The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Forum, held this year in Beijing, should have been an unchecked testament to the rising power of China’s influence but instead it seems to be going badly. From the matching smocks that all the participants are wearing, widely ridiculed as Star Trek uniforms, to the air pollution in Beijing that’s out of control, not to mention Hong Kong, which is also out of control, this year’s APEC isn’t another Beijing Olympics where China is at the top of its propaganda game.

In yet another sign that China is not maturing as a democracy, the Chinese government blocked access to U.S. websites showing the real measurements of pollution in the area—which are about six times the acceptable levels. The concentration of PM2.5, the smallest particulate matter, is at 153 micrograms per cubic meter. The World Health Organization (WHO) puts the safe daily level at 25 micrograms.

This year APEC seemed to stand for: Asian People Exasperated with China. President Xi Jinping and his government, which never has had much of a sense of humor, seem to be providing more comedy material to the world than they are comfortable doing.

The Star Trek meme has taken off on the World Wide Web. If the APEC talks were set in the science fiction world of Gene Rodenberry, China would clearly be the Klingon Empire and the other unloved attendee, Russia’s Vladmir Putin would be the war-like Romulan envoy. President Barack Obama, presumably, would be Mr. Spock, emotionally distant with a cold logic all his own. It could be a great costume party. However, one thing is clear at APEC this year: nobody is having a good time. The events have been punctuated by multiple awkward world leader meeting moments.

Xi did not look like a happy man as hours before the APEC conference began, he awkwardly shook hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It was the first meeting for the two estranged leaders since 2012, after Abe’s decision to visit Yasukuni Shrine where Japan’s war dead—and war criminals—are enshrined. This was taken as a sign of Japan’s lack of repentance for the atrocious acts committed during its rule of China in the early 20th century. Yet, after months of backdoor negotiations there was Xi, stone-facedly shaking hands with a smirking Abe. According to Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs sources, before the meeting China demanded that Japan admit a territorial dispute exists over the Senkaku Islands, which it calls Diaoyu. China wasn’t demanding that Japan recognize the island as Chinese territory—it demanded that Japan recognized it as “an issue.” Japan has been like a territorial alcoholic for years previously wouldn’t even admit that there was a problem.

Beijing also demanded that Abe declare he will no longer pay visits to the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Abe didn’t give in to that request, holding to the line that it’s a “personal” thing.

The incredibly vague agreement they reached admits that China thinks there is, indeed, a problem about the territorial rights of Senkaku. And that small concession by Abe inflamed critics in Japan, who called it “a losing strategy.”

Grant Newsham, an expert on Asia Pacific security issues and former U.S. Marine Corps Liaison Officer to the Japanese military, sees the meeting as a strategic mistake by Abe: "Is it even worth considering whether China is willing to change its position regarding territorial disputes and its desire to dominate Asia?  It's not. Thus, Japan has just conceded a main point—that a dispute exists and its willing to discuss it—even if the government of Japan claims it said no such thing in its statement.  The PRC (China) has therefore gotten something important.  And what did Japan get?  A grudging handshake and a short meeting. Who looks like the supplicant?"

Koichi Nakano, a professor of Political Science at Sophia University, sees the meeting as a minor victory for Japan’s increasingly unpopular leader, “I think that a meeting was better than no meeting at all, so that's a plus for Abe. Having said that, he is still on probation as far as the Chinese government is concerned, so it remains to be seen whether a substantial improvement is to be made in future meetings.” Nakano suggests that Abe “still has to play a delicate balancing act for the foreseeable future, and the thorny issues are all left unresolved as yet.”

One political observer summed up the atmospherics: “It looks like two guys drinking lemonade with the sugar left out.”

By contrast, if body language is any indication, Obama and Xi were getting along rather well. Xi welcomed Obama with a smile and a warm handshake.  As Russia ramps up the conflict in the Ukraine, Obama appears to be appealing for China’s help to maintain world order.

“I’ve had the pleasure of hosting President Xi twice in the United States,” said Obama. “The last time we met, in California, he pointed out that the Pacific Ocean is big enough for both of our nations.  And I agree.  The United States welcomes the rise of a prosperous, peaceful and stable China.  I want to repeat that.  We welcome the rise of a prosperous, peaceful and stable China…. If China and the United States can work together, the world benefits.” 

The neighbors a bit closer to Beijing’s looming shadow are skeptical, but Xi tried to underscore that image by engaging in what looked like whirlwind diplomacy. He signed a commercial deal favorable to South Korea and reached out to Vietnam following recent territorial disputes. China and South Korea have completed talks on a bilateral free trade agreement that will remove tariffs on more than 90 per cent of goods over two decades. China is South Korea's largest trading partner.

China and Vietnam agreed to handle maritime disputes through talks, months after ties between the two countries hit a three-decade low. President Truong Tan Sang also had bilateral meetings with U.S. President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of APEC. China has alienated communist Vietnam in recent months by invading Vietnam’s waters; Japan and the US are actively trying to woo Vietnam to their side, picking up the slack.

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Judging by the pictures of President Truong Tan Sang and Obama, Vietnam is showing some affection back. President Sang’s handshake with Xi was icy, and he later said, “With regard to the East Sea issue…both sides need to maintain peace, stability, security, maritime safety and freedom while controlling disagreements and preventing the emergence of issues that could damage bilateral ties.”

In other words, “China: back off.”

The other awkward encounter was with Russia’s Vladmir Putin and Australia’s Tony Abbot. When the world leaders gathered for the traditional “family photo” in their ensign uniforms (actually, traditional China Dress as conceived by the Communist Party of Japan), Abbott was placed very close to Putin. It is the first time the two leaders had been physically in close contact since the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in Ukraine airspace, which killed 38 Australians. Abbot reportedly raised MH17 over dinner and the two are planning to meet again. A source within the Australian government told The Daily Beast, “What Tony would really like to say is: ‘Hey, Vladmir, you supplied your goons with the weapons that got many of my constituents killed. I’m bloody pissed at you.’ Diplomatically, of course, he can’t say those things.”

However, maybe Abbot can refuse to vote for Putin as “APEC Star Trek Dressed Attendee Who Looks Most like Captain Jean Luc-Picard.” If only he could be more like the peaceful and wise Starfleet commander in real life….

In another time, perhaps China might have tried to show “world leadership” by setting up meetings with Putin and other APEC members, but not this year. 

Of course, not everyone sees the event as a sign that China’s power is waning. John Pomfret, China scholar, and author of the critically acclaimed, Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and The Story Of New China has a different take.

“China spent $6 billion on the building (for the meeting) and $1 billion on the road. They are great hosts, always have been,” says Pomfret. “As to substantive stuff, Xi and Abe shook hands and talked for 25 minutes. That's a step forward from the tension of the past two years. Obama came brandishing new ten-year visas for the Chinese; that is intended to appeal to China's rich and famous who hate having to line up at the embassy and be humiliated by visa officers who make a fraction of what the Chinese make. A smart move on Obama’s part.

“As to China being too big for its britches—welcome to the new Asia, welcome to the China Dream. This is only the beginning unless the economy goes south,” says Pomfret. But, then again, that’s starting to look like a real possibility. “Right now the economy is going nowhere and unless they get smart and deal with their bad loans and rely less on investment, things could get very difficult here.”

However, until the China economy really stumbles, there’s no denying China is still the power broker at APEC; we all may end up wearing the those silly Star Trek outfits as part of the new Federation. And judging by China’s heavy- handed handling of the democracy movement in Hong Kong—maybe we had better start learning Klingon.