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4 stories to watch at the APEC Summit in Beijing

A paramilitary police officer stands in front of banners for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation  forum outside the China National Convention Center in Beijing on Thursday. (Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg)
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On Monday in Beijing, leaders and dignitaries from 21 countries will convene at the annual two-day Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. APEC, as a bloc, represents more than half of the world’s GDP and some 44 percent of its total trade.

Its relevance is felt most keenly at these high-powered meetings, which are punctuated each year by the awkward photo-shop of all 21 world leaders, posing in matching outfits. One year, it was bomber jackets; another, an eye-catching batik.

After APEC concludes, some high-profile statesmen in attendance will break off and head to Burma for the East Asia Summit. Others will proceed to Australia for a meeting of the G20. A week of side-line meetings and many handshakes awaits. Here’s what to look out for during the two-day conclave.

Rival trade deals

Though it’s sometimes hard to tell judging from the headlines, the center of gravity of the global economy is moving toward the Pacific. Spurred by the emergence of a number of robust, developing economies in Asia, as well as impressive growth in countries in Latin America, the United States has been pushing a trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, which would stitch together 12 countries along the Pacific Rim.

China, conspicuously, is not included in the TPP, and has been pushing its own deal, known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, as a riposte to Washington. The latter would integrate a bloc of East and Southeast Asian nations, as well as India, Australia and New Zealand.

Neither pact is a done deal, and the Obama administration may lose its chance all together to push TPP through in Congress the closer it gets to the next presidential cycle. APEC stands across these overlapping negotiations and may be a key body for mediating the tensions that may result.

Putin vs. the world

Russian President Vladimir Putin has played an outsized role in world affairs this year, and his presence in Beijing at the APEC Summit will generate its own headlines. Putin embarked on something of a charm offensive this year in China. Moscow hopes closer partnerships with Beijing, particularly in the realm of energy and natural gas, will compensate for the damage done by rounds of American and European Union trade sanctions imposed on Russia as a result of involvement (and interventions) in Ukraine this year.

Putin is also expected to have some conversations, including a meeting with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Last month, the conservative premier, not known to bite his tongue, said he would “shirtfront” Putin, a term for a type of an aggressive tackle deployed in Australian Rules Football, when they next meet. Abbott was animated by Russia’s handling of the crash of Malaysian Airlines flight 17, believed to be shot down by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine earlier this year.

Abbott has toned down his rhetoric somewhat ahead of his chat with Putin, promising now that it will be “a very robust conversation.” At the time of his provocative comments, a Russian diplomat posted in Canberra reminded Abbott that Putin was a professionally trained judo wrestler.

China vs. Japan

China and Japan are historic rivals, as well as Asia’s two biggest economies. Observers are expecting a much-awaited meeting (or at least a handshake) between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Both came to power roughly around the same time, and their tenures have so far seen a spike in tensions between the two countries, particularly over a disputed archipelago in the East China Sea that Japan administers but China still claims as its own.

Fanning the flames, to an extent, is the hawkish nationalism of Abe, whose repeated visits to the controversial Yasukuni shrine – which honors Japan’s war dead, including figures considered war criminals by many elsewhere in Asia – have antagonized neighboring governments, as well as China’s voluble netizens.

Meanwhile, Xi appears to be taking China down an even more authoritarian, hardline path than his predecessors. In the weeks ahead of the APEC summit, Chinese and Japanese officials have engaged in furious rounds of talks to try to paper over the growing rift between the two countries. A meeting between their two leaders would be a sign of progress but not a diplomatic breakthrough.

The skies over Beijing

Outside the meeting chambers, China has pulled out all the stops to put on a good show. To be more precise, it has pulled the plug on thousands of factories, shut down schools and businesses and curbed the numbers of cars on the roads all in a bid to clear up the skies in this notoriously polluted city.

The efforts appear to have worked:

But critics suggest the efforts are cosmetic and superficial, creating Beijing's version of a latterday Potemkin village. And meteorologists forecast that the northwesterly winds that help dispel the polluted smog that accumulates in Beijing may drop off after the weekend.