After dilly-dallying for some time, President Joe Biden informed the Thai government that he will not attend the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders' meeting (APECLM) on Nov 18-19. The reason is quite simple: He is attending the wedding of his granddaughter at the White House. Instead, he is sending Vice President Kamala Harris to represent the US at the two-day meeting in Bangkok.
For the host, it rang hollow, as the US frequently refers to Thailand as a "great and good" friend. It is unfortunate and extremely disappointing. Mr Biden is choosing to skip the leaders' meeting at his peril. When former president Barrack Obama missed the APECLM 2013, he said without any qualms: "It's like me not showing up at my own party." Lest we forget, it was former president Bill Clinton who enthusiastically pushed for the Apec meeting at the leaders' level at Blake Island, Seattle in 1993. Mr Clinton knew that the Apec platform was pivotal for economic opportunities and growth for the American business community.
This is not the first time that the host country has faced wrath over a last-minute no-show by the US when summits have taken place in this part of the world. US Secretary of State John Kerry came to Bali, Indonesia, on behalf of his boss, Mr Obama, for the APECLM in 2013. Vice President Mike Pence joined the APECLM in 2018 in Papua New Guinea, replacing former president Donald Trump. At the Asean-related summit in 2019, Mr Trump dispatched a non-cabinet official to represent him in the wee hours. Therefore, given the current timeframe, the choice of Ms Harris should be commendable. After all, she is next in line to Mr Biden.
Mr Biden's reported absence has given local political pundits and media influencers from the left, right, and centre a field day. For the conservatives, it is regrettable that Mr Biden will not make it to the country's most important meeting since 2003. But it will not diminish Apec's overall objectives as other leaders from 20 economies have almost all confirmed their participation at the time of this writing, including Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Sad but true, the US president will miss an excellent opportunity to confer with other world leaders that he would not meet on the White House's South Lawn.
Meanwhile, Government House and related agencies, especially the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, are trying to put on a brave face, saying that both countries are still coordinating the visit and it is not yet final. Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai has worked hard to get Mr Biden here knowing full well that Apec is a good place for the US to drum up his administration's leadership and credibility as the US will be the host next year.
At the United Nations General Assembly, in his speech, Mr Don urged major powers to utilise the upcoming regional and global meetings being convened in Southeast Asia in November as venues to negotiate peace and find a solution for the conflict in Ukraine and set forth new directions for cooperation to cope with challenges in the post-pandemic world. After all, Southeast Asia remains a neutral ground for all powers to convene and engage with one another.
The opposition parties also seized the headlines to attack and blame the government for his absence. Some of them went as far as to cite the lack of democracy in Thailand as the main reason. Others, academics included, blamed the country's failure to help solve the quagmire in Myanmar. Strangely, none has given any credence to Mr Biden's own family engagement as the main reason.
With the return of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha after a five-week suspension, now it is high time for Thailand to assert its leadership in making sure that the APECLM serves its original purpose of promoting trade and the well-being of 60% of the world's population. At the moment, key Apec members are too occupied with their own domestic turmoil. Therefore, the Apec host must show its mettle.
To begin with, Thailand has a few countries on the list to be invited as guests during the November event. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen was the first guest of honour to confirm his presence. Hun Sen currently serves as the Asean chair. Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia are not Apec members. The second guest could be the newly appointed Prime Minister Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He is attending the G20 summit in Bali before coming to Bangkok.
The biggest surprise on the guest list is the third guest, French President Emmanuel Macron. He has been wanting to visit Thailand and the region for quite some time. But Covid-19 stopped all planned visits to the region. Since Sept 6, Thailand and France have been in close communication about Mr Macron's visit. His presence in Bangkok shows the importance of economic links between Europe and the Asia-Pacific. Europe is the leader in digital governance, which could serve as a template for the Apec members which are moving toward a digitalised economy. Earlier, the invited guests also included India and the United Kingdom, which are major Apec trading partners, but they could not join due to scheduling conflicts.
Thailand has already made progress on the long-awaited Free Trade Agreement in the Asia-Pacific with multi-year action plans to realise the world's largest free trade area in the coming years. To promote sustainable development, Thailand has adopted the Bio-Circular-Green Economy Model (BCG), which already has gained traction among Apec members as a means to achieve more balanced development in this recovery phase. The BCG Economy Model utilises science, technology, and innovation to encourage the optimisation of resources for environmentally friendly economic growth.
The host has been working hard to carry out preparatory meetings all year round to ensure a smooth leaders' meeting but the war in Ukraine has disrupted a series of ministerial meetings with walkouts and no joint statements from ministerial meetings over the past months. At the upcoming APECLM, given the current polarisation among Apec members, a joint statement is not expected but there could be a consensus statement issued by the Thai chair.
The US die-hard attitude toward Russia would certainly impact the future trajectory of Apec's work next year. Thailand thinks it would be appropriate for Mr Biden to show up and take up next year's baton -- in this case virtually. Therefore, the idea of requesting Mr Biden to deliver a video message has not yet been ruled out. If the Ukraine war continues, more trouble and deep cleavages can be envisaged as next year's host can impose sanctions and other restrictions including entry visas on the Russian delegation. During the current UNGA, Russian diplomats faced difficulties in obtaining entry visas to attend the UNGA.
It is not hard to read Washington's mind. After the recent ministerial meeting in Los Angeles of Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) members, it is clear the Biden administration wants to finalise the IPEF before the APECLM later next year. The White House may want to focus on the IPEF as the new economic engine, which excludes China and Russia. For the US, the IPEF is an ideal framework to gain a foothold in the region after the US pull-out of its own creation, the Trans-Pacific Partnership back in 2017.
It remains to be seen if the White House will do something drastic in promoting the IPEF as its No.1 priority. After all, the war in Ukraine has already changed the dynamics of economic ties and logistics in the Asia-Pacific, which will never return to the golden era of the past when the US was the dominant player.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.