With Obama Out, Others Take APEC Stage, Sort Of

By Elaine Kurtenbach 8 October 2013

BALI, Indonesia — As some of the world’s heavy-weight leaders stood in the spotlight Monday at a regional economic summit, they still managed to be upstaged by who was missing. Even US Secretary of State John Kerry poked fun at himself while standing in for President Barack Obama, saying when he worked to replace a president nearly a decade ago, “this is not what I had in mind.”

For Obama, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit was meant to be an opportunity to underline renewed US attention to Asia as a counterbalance to China’s increased economic and military clout. But that message was undermined by the US budget impasse and government shutdown forcing Obama to cancel his trip to Indonesia and three other countries. His absence was perhaps felt most by Indonesians who consider him one of their own after he spent part of his childhood growing up in the capital, Jakarta.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, often at odds with Obama on foreign policy and other issues, sympathized with the US president’s predicament, calling his decision to stay home “justified.”

“You can see the president is busy with the domestic situation of the United States,” he said. “If I were him I would not have come as well. Any leader of a state would have done the same.”

Kerry, who lost the 2004 presidential race, sought to fill the Obama vacuum by assuring business leaders that nothing will shake America’s commitment to Asia and that the government shutdown in Washington will soon be over and forgotten.

Leaders of the 21 nations and territories that comprise APEC, meeting amid tight security on this tropical island in eastern Indonesia, urged faster work on reforms meant to break down trade barriers and improve competitiveness.

The annual APEC gathering gives regional leaders the opportunity to thrash out policies to encourage trade and business cooperation, while also tackling country-to-country issues in meetings on the sidelines. It also is a boon for this year’s host Bali, which has worked to rebuild its tourism industry following terrorist attacks in 2002 and 2005 that killed more than 200 people.

But there were some light moments mixed in with the work. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono picked up a guitar and serenaded Putin on his 61st birthday.

Speaking to business and political leaders, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sought to reassure other Asian countries, especially those that suffered colonization and invasion before and during World War II, over Japan’s efforts to upgrade its military.

“We are aspiring to become a pro-active contributor to stability and security in the world as a country that observes international norms,” Abe said.

The reference to international norms also appeared aimed at China, whose naval incursions into waters near disputed islands in the East China Sea have angered Japan. Relations between the two biggest Asian economies remain chilly with scant sign either is willing to compromise on the islands issue.

But China’s President Xi Jinping said his country only wants peace, and he is confident its economic growth will remain robust despite a recent slowdown in the world’s second biggest economy.

Meanwhile, the dozen countries involved in the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership were haggling over their plans for a free trade area they hope will eventually encompass the entire region.

Kerry said the 12-nation trade pact would generate growth and jobs and unleash investment and entrepreneurship.

“At a time when all of us seek strong, sustainable growth, TPP is creating a race to the top, not to the bottom,” he said.

Contents of the trade talks have been kept secret. However, relatively awkward issues such as protection of patents and other intellectual property are among the topics still being worked out, officials said.

“Despite President Obama’s absence, each country is sticking to its resolve to achieve an agreement by the year’s end,” Japan’s economy minister Akira Amari told reporters. “We are in the process of negotiating to conclude the talks within this year.”

New Zealand Trade Minister Tim Groser said an agreement by the end of the year is “doable” and would be the first time in decades that multiple countries have signed up to an agreement that aims to completely eliminate tariffs.

Associated Press writers Niniek Karmini, Margie Mason and Stephen Wright contributed.