Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

4 October 2013

This weekend, Indonesia will play host to 19 leaders attending the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting. It's a rare chance for the world's fourth most-populous nation to bask in the blanket media coverage that comes with the billing. Expect the full display of batiks, backslapping and bonhomie – and the absence of headline-grabbing news – during two days of scripted, formal gatherings on the resort island of Bali.

Most people will dismiss the APEC meeting as a non-event. But for diplomacy junkies, these kinds of get-togethers offer plenty of non-stop action. That's because they will dissect every handshake and snub and unplanned huddle that takes place on the sidelines for signs of who's cosying up to whom and who's getting the cold shoulder.

For Asia hands, the big story is the competition for influence between the region's three largest economies – China, Japan and South Korea. The three want nothing more than to gain greater access to Southeast Asia's fast-growing markets and to wield political clout over their neighbours. Lately it seems the three nations' leaders have been locked in a contest for the region's top schmoozer.

Each has been busy negotiating multibillion-dollar trade deals and forging closer security alliances with select members of the Association of Southeast Nations (Asean). Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe has visited Southeast Asia three times since taking office last December. On Wednesday, China's leader, Xi Jinping, flew to Indonesia to meet with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and address Indonesia's parliament, the first foreign leader to do so. South Korean President Park Geun-hye is planning to engage in her own brand of "sales diplomacy" to drum up business in the region this month.  

What the trio haven't managed to do yet is deal with strained diplomatic ties among themselves. Japan is at odds with both China and South Korea over territorial claims. Nobody seems ready to offer face-saving concessions. The political tensions have hit tourism and business investments and created a divide at a time when the three should be trying to present a united front against regional security threats – North Korea's nuclear ambitions being the most obvious one.

Business leaders from Japan, China and South Korea have made a show of reaching out to each other in recent months, to no avail. APEC offers an opportunity: Abe, Xi and Park could meet informally for a few minutes during a break, without the expectations of a prearranged summit. A short chat at a big meeting could be just the thing they need to start patching things up.

Kenji Hall is Monocle's Asia editor at large

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