As international groupings go, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) doesn’t get a lot of respect. First, there’s the name, which is just grammatically awkward when you don’t use the acronym. Then there’s the record of achievement, which to be honest is pretty meager, unless that APEC Free Trade Area that was pledged during the Clinton administration got completed while I was asleep. In truth, APEC’s principal claim to fame is the annual tradition of leader ‘family photos.” If you think I’m kidding about that, see the above photo, as well as Hayes Brown’s definitive ranking of them.
This year’s APEC summit that just wrapped up in Beijing is therefore highly unusual… because stuff got done. Seriously, a LOT of stuff got done.
For the United States, the centerpiece was three bilateral deals reached with China. As The New York Times’s Mark Landler notes:
China and the United States made common cause on Wednesday against the threat of climate change, staking out an ambitious joint plan to curb carbon emissions as a way to spur nations around the world to make their own cuts in greenhouse gases.
The landmark agreement, jointly announced here by President Obama and President Xi Jinping, includes new targets for carbon emissions reductions by the United States and a first-ever commitment by China to stop its emissions from growing by 2030….
It was the signature achievement of an unexpectedly productive two days of meetings between the leaders. Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi also agreed to a military accord designed to avert clashes between Chinese and American planes and warships in the tense waters off the Chinese coast, as well as an understanding to cut tariffs for technology products.
Those latter two agreements would be big deals in their own right. Any deal that reduces military tensions in the region is a good one, and the accord on the WTO’s Information Technology Agreement converts a slow-moving plurilateral arrangement into something that will have more widespread coverage. The climate change agreement is even bigger, however, as it lays the groundwork for a global deal to be negotiated in Paris in 2015. And as Secretary of State John Kerry explained in a New York Times op-ed, abiding by this agreement has profound implications for China:
China is also announcing today that it would expand the share of total energy consumption coming from zero-emission sources (renewable and nuclear energy) to around 20 percent by 2030, sending a powerful signal to investors and energy markets around the world and helping accelerate the global transition to clean-energy economies. To meet its goal, China will need to deploy an additional 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar and other renewable generation capacity by 2030 – an enormous amount, about the same as all the coal-fired power plants in China today, and nearly as much as the total electricity generation capacity of the United States.
For the United States, the bigger takeaway is the ability to cut such deals with China while still moving forward on the pivot. A key part of this strategy has been to make the case that it is possible for the United States to simultaneously deepen cooperation with China and with China’s skittish neighbors in the region. Given the bilateral deals and some forward progress on the Trans -Pacific Partnership, it looks like the Obama administration pulled off that feat.
For China, the bilateral deals with the United States cap off a flurry of outreach efforts to other countries in the region. The biggest and most grudging was the “agree to disagree” deal between China and Japan on the Senkyaku/Diaoyu islands, followed by the Most Grudging Handshake Ever between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping. While these encounters highlight the ongoing tensions between the two countries, they also represent an improvement over the previous status quo. China and Vietnam also had something of a rapprochement, agreeing to handle their maritime dispute through consultation. And there was the second major Sino-Russian gas deal.
That last deal doesn’t help U.S. interests obviously, but on the whole, the pleasant surprise at the end of the APEC summit is that both China and the United States had win-win summits, but not at the expense of the other great power. This is not to say that Sino-American relations will sail smoothly forward. They won’t.
If you step back, however, the combined effect of the summit reveals a big friggin’ deal. After a year in which there has been a lot of loose talk about the collapse of global order, the combined effect of these agreements is significant. At a minimum, they suggest forward momentum on both climate change and trade, and that tensions in the Pacific Rim will not be boiling over anytime soon.