BANGKOK — All the usual rituals of international summits were there: the group photos, the gala dinners, the noticeably vibrant shirts leaders force themselves into. But eclipsing all of that at Asia’s two big meetings was some unusually forthright criticism that exposed deepening divisions rattling the region.
Front and center was the rivalry between the U.S. and China. The two countries are locked in a widening trade war and their representatives used the summits to exchange barbs and maneuver to expand their influence.
Competition between the great powers is not new to the region. But over decades of war, financial crises and other setbacks, countries across Asia and the Pacific Rim have used these annual meetings to talk through such problems, usually opting to sideline disagreements in a show of unity. Consensus, not conflict, is typically the norm.
This year is different.
The clash between the world’s two biggest economies is shaking the bedrock of regional amity and leaving some countries worried they will be forced to choose between Beijing and Washington. It also may bode poorly for compromise between Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping when they meet this month at the Group of 20 gathering
The antagonisms kicked off last week at a Southeast Asian summit in Singapore, where U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, standing in for Trump, declared that “empire and aggression have no place” in the region, a clear reference to Chinese expansion in the disputed South China Sea.
The discord carried over to the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Papua New Guinea, where leaders failed for the first time in nearly 30 years of such gatherings to endorse a final joint statement. China apparently pushed back hard against U.S. demands for strong language against unfair trade practices.
Pence and Chinese leaders sparred at both summits, with the vice president describing China’s militarization and expansion in the South China Sea as “illegal and dangerous.” He accused Beijing of threatening the sovereignty of many nations and said it “endangers the prosperity of the world.”
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang smacked back, urging fellow leaders to send a positive message to markets ruffled by the trade war, which has seen both sides imposing punitive tariffs on billions of dollars of each other’s exports and has the potential to unravel supply chains across the globe.
The acrimony may be somewhat less apparent at the G-20 gathering in Buenos Aeries, which will include leaders from across the globe and the focus will be global.