Page last updated at 05:44 GMT, Friday, 13 November 2009

Apec seeks new balance of power

The Apec summit, now starting in Singapore, brings together leaders from dozens of nations and major world powers. As the BBC's South East Asia correspondent Rachel Harvey has been finding out, behind all the economic talk lies a deeper search for meaning.

Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong Nov 09
Singapore hopes to gain kudos by hosting the high-level summit

If you simply look at the numbers, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum ought to be one of the most influential gatherings on the global calendar.

It brings together 21 of the world's largest economies and accounts for 44% of world trade and 40% of the world's population.

This year the annual summit, which includes, among others, the leaders of the United States, Russia, China, Japan and the 10 members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), is taking place in Singapore.

There is plenty on the agenda - the nascent recovery from the global economic downturn, plans to create a trans-Pacific free trade area by 2020, climate change and regional security.

Regional posture

But in a BBC interview ahead of the summit with the Singaporean Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, two words seemed to dominate - rebalancing and re-engagement.

The rebalancing is partly to do with the economy. As the world emerges from recession questions are being asked about what lessons can be learned.

"The United States needs to borrow less and save more," said Mr Lee, "and that means somebody else in the world has to save a little bit less and spend a little bit more. And if you look at where the imbalances are it means countries like China, where savings are high, have to make some adjustments."

We want a peaceful, constructive rivalry
Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong

That points to another more subtle rebalancing in the region - the shifting balance of power between the United States and China.

China syndrome

China has been steadily building its business interests and political ties, especially in South-East Asia.

"China has been very active in the region, cultivating countries and making friends and influencing people" said Mr Lee.

And as China was quietly extending its influence, the United States was preoccupied with Iraq, Afghanistan and the so-called War on Terror. In effect America took its eye off the Asian ball, as the Singaporean prime minister acknowledged.

"The tilling of the ground, the cultivation of the relationships in South-East Asia particularly has not been given as much attention as we would have preferred," he said.

But now the United States says it's back and wants to reengage with Asia. President Barack Obama is making his first trip to the region, visiting Japan, China and South Korea on either side of the Apec summit.

Some are predicting a new era of Sino-American rivalry, with smaller nations in Asia left to play one off against the other or forced to choose sides.

Yet the Singaporean prime minister cautioned against a confrontational approach.

"We want a peaceful, constructive rivalry," he said. "If there's a rift down the middle of the Pacific there would be trouble for all of us ... including America and China."

That also seems to be the view from Washington.

The senior director for East Asian affairs at the National Security Council, Jeffrey Bader, told reporters recently: "I don't see this relationship as a zero-sum one. We see it as a relationship where we're obviously going to have differences, where we are going to be competitors in certain respects. But we want to maximise areas where we can work together because the global challenges we face will simply not be met if we don't."

There is another arena where Washington's new approach may be in evidence in Singapore.

On the sidelines of the Apec summit, President Obama plans to meet leaders from the Asean nations, which offers the tantalising prospect of an American President and a member of the Burmese military government (almost certainly the prime minister Thein Sein) in the same room and the same time.

Burma conundrum

The American administration is embarking on a new policy towards Burma which it describes as engagement while keeping sanctions in place.

They are in it for regime survival and for personal survival - unless those concerns can somehow be managed in a transition forward they are not going to be persuaded by sweet talk
Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong

"It's a very significant symbolic step," said Prime Minister Lee. "For America to be prepared to talk and for the Myanmar [Burmese] govt to be prepared to think how to move forward ….. so that it is internationally acceptable and domestically legitimate, I think that's important."

But Burma's neighbours in Asean have themselves been criticised for being too soft on the generals in Naypyidaw, their remote headquarters. So isn't it time that countries like Singapore applied more pressure?

"You can inflict personal indignities on a leader, but is that the way to change and influence a country's policies?" Mr Lee responded. "They are in it for regime survival and for personal survival. Unless those concerns can somehow be managed in a transition forward they are not going to be persuaded by sweet talk."

Talk and persuasion are the stock in trade of global summits. Apec is certainly no exception.

"This is not the kind of forum where you sign a peace treaty or go to war," said Mr Lee in defence of Apec.

"For 20 years we've been talking about freeing trade in a dynamic part of the world. I hope at this meeting we'll make further progress in that direction."

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