Xi Sidesteps APEC Talks With Biden as Leaders Grapple With Virus

U.S. President Joe Biden and global leaders from across the Pacific held a virtual APEC meeting Friday to discuss how the world could best emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, even as nations continue to grapple with a deadly resurgence of virus cases.

But the virtual session did not feature a highly-anticipated discussion between Biden and Xi Jinping after the Chinese leader opted to record a message and didn’t participate in a virtual roundtable, according to a diplomatic source familiar with the event.

The Chinese leader and Biden have had only limited interaction since the new U.S. president took office in January, and Friday’s summit comes as the two nations continue to spar on topics including human rights to technology. The White House is discussing whether to move ahead with plans for a digital trade agreement covering Indo-Pacific economies to counter Beijing’s influence, while it criticizes China over its policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

Instead, leaders discussed ways to speed the flow of vaccines across borders and whether vaccine passports or quarantine bubbles could ease transit between nations, said New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, whose country is chairing the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation this year.

Countries are concerned “this pandemic has a while to run,” Ardern told reporters.

Even without Xi present for the discussion, U.S.-China relations appeared to loom large. The U.S. president “reiterated his commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific” and said he hoped the region adopted a “values-based” and “transparent” vision, the White House said in a statement . The U.S. president also discussed his Build Back Better global initiative, which is intended to counter China’s Belt and Road program.

Despite that, Ardern insisted the tensions were not on display as the leaders discussed coordinating an emergence from the global pandemic. APEC reiterated its belief that markets should remain open despite the virus, she said. The 21-member group includes the U.S., China, Taiwan, Japan, Australia and Canada, as well Southeast Asian and Pacific-facing countries.

Biden outlined the U.S. strategy for donating vaccine supply and “also discussed the importance of investing in better global health security and preparedness so that we are ready the next time we face a pandemic,” the White House said.

The meeting came as APEC countries from Indonesia and Malaysia to Thailand and Japan face rising coronavirus caseloads, and as Hong Kong and Singapore struggle to reopen their economies at a pace that matches New York and London. Southeast Asia is experiencing one of the worst virus situations in the world right now, with deaths surging by 39% in the seven days through Wednesday, the fastest increase globally.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Thursday called the meeting “an important meeting held at a critical time.”

“We hope all parties can uphold the vision of an Asian-Pacific community with a shared future, carry forward the Asia-Pacific partnership, send a positive message of fighting the coronavirus with solidarity, and deepening economic recovery and cooperation,” Zhao said at a regular briefing in Beijing on Thursday.

Trade ministers for APEC nations had agreed in June to try and expedite the distribution of vaccines and other essential medical supplies between economies to combat the pandemic. Biden had separately met with the leaders of India, Japan and Australia in March as part of the so-called Quad group of countries, pledging to ramp up vaccine manufacturing in the region.

The outbreak in Indonesia -- where hospitals are overwhelmed by Covid patients and oxygen supplies are running out -- has eclipsed that in India, which shocked the world with the scale of its recent second wave. Thailand, the first place to see a virus case after China last year, is also seeing surging cases after a period of successful containment.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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