Apec summit: Obama seeks political salvation in free-trade deal

US President attempts to push pact with fast-growing Asian nations

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Indy Politics

The clothes that many of the world’s most powerful people wore were – in the now-established style of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) summit – a break from the sartorial norm.

But behind the Beijing fanfare, red carpets and silk shirts, leaders were engaged in overlapping rounds of tense diplomacy.

And for Barack Obama, the summit represented an opportunity to salvage his flagging reputation domestically and internationally with a long-awaited free-trade deal.

While much of Monday’s focus was on the first face-to-face meeting between China and Japan’s leaders in years, the United States attempted to push for a regional free-trade pact, aiming to establish trade links to access to some of the world’s “fastest-growing markets”.

At the start of a week-long tour that is meant to reinvigorate his so-called “pivot to Asia”, Mr Obama said that plans for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) cementing free trade between the US and 11 other countries in the region was making headway again after a long deadlock.

After attending the summit, Mr Obama will remain in China for a state visit on Wednesday. Relations with Beijing have been frayed by American complaints of Chinese cyber theft. More broadly, the US has become unsettled by China’s growing influence in the region and its eager response as Moscow has looked to it for help to offset the effects of diplomatic and economic isolation from the West over Ukraine.

Mr Obama, who will travel from China to Burma and then to the Group of 20 summit at the weekend in Brisbane, Australia, was said to have run into Russia’s Vladimir Putin in the corridors of the summit late yesterday evening. A more substantial, though probably informal, meeting between the two men was possible today, US officials indicated. The relationship between Mr Obama and Mr Putin is frayed.

“They only had a brief encounter where they didn’t have time to cover issues,” a senior US official was quoted as saying. “There were no talks. They greeted each other,” the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian journalists in Beijing. “They exchanged a few lines. The presidents assume they will have a chance to talk on the sidelines [of the G20] in the coming days.”

Mr Obama talked up the prospects of the TPP negotiations at meeting on the fringes of the summit attended by the heads of the countries taking part, which do not include China, which has been pushing for an alternative, wider deal it calls the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP). The TPP talks have long been stymied in particular by Japan’s willingness to open its domestic market to agricultural imports. But Mr Obama, who had invited the TPP leaders to the US embassy in Beijing, indicated that those difficulties were being overcome.

“During the past few weeks our teams have made good progress in resolving several outstanding issues regarding a potential agreement. Today is an opportunity for us at the political level to break some remaining logjams,” he said.

Mr Obama’s own leeway to have the TPP approved by Congress may have been enhanced by last week’s gains by the free-trade-friendly Republicans in the midterms.

“This has the potential to be an historic agreement, Mr Obama said. In a joint statement following the meeting, leaders from the 12 nations involved in the trade talks said they have been encouraged by recent progress.

“We remain committed to ensuring that the final agreement reflects our common vision of an ambitious, comprehensive, high-standard and balanced agreement that enhances the competitiveness of our economies, promotes innovation and entrepreneurship, spurs economic growth and prosperity, and supports job creation in our countries,” the statement read. At a separate news conference, Mr Obama attempted to play down any flashpoints between China and the US. “Our message is that we want to see China successful,” he said. He and Mr Xi are scheduled to hold bilateral talks after the Apec summit concludes tonight.

One agreement was reached yesterday over tourist visas between US and Chinese citizens which will be valid for 10 years instead of expiring after 12 months. The White House said it hoped the deal would lure more Chinese travellers, and with them billions of dollars into the US economy.

For Mr Xi the summit presents an opportunity to showcase his country’s growing regional and global influence. Even keeping the sky blue and free of smog was a top priority for the government, which ordered factories shut down in the area for its duration. Local villagers near the resort have been banned from heating their homes with fires.