Paris attacks, South China Sea draw focus at APEC talks

Posted at 5:06 AM, Nov 17, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-17 07:08:16-05

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Asia-Pacific leaders are voicing outrage over the attacks in Paris as security and geopolitical concerns overshadow talks on trade and the economy at an annual regional summit being held under ultra-tight security in the Philippines.

Leaders of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum plan to condemn the Paris attacks in a joint statement to be released on the last day of meetings, according to a draft of their declaration seen Tuesday by The Associated Press.

"We strongly condemn these atrocities that demand a united voice from the global community. We, therefore, reaffirm our strong collective resolve to counter terrorism," the draft statement says.

The attacks by suspected Islamic State group extremists killed 129 people and wounded 350 others. Victims were from at least 19 nations, according to French President Francois Hollande.

Friction over territorial disputes also was not on the official APEC agenda, whose mission is promoting trade and development. But the rifts were inevitably bursting through APEC's facade of handshakes and unity photo ops.

China's territorial ambitions in disputed waters of the South China Sea were weighing on the minds of foreign ministers who met in Manila ahead of the leaders' summit, which begins Wednesday, officials said.

Five APEC countries including the Philippines are at odds with Beijing over conflicting claims to islands in those resource-rich waters. The U.S. showed solidarity with the Philippines by conducting military maneuvers recently near islands where China has reclaimed land and built settlements to shore up its claims.

Shortly after arriving in Manila, President Barack Obama underscored that support by touring the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, a Philippine Navy warship once owned by the U.S. that Manila turned into its largest warship in an otherwise anemic fleet.

Obama said the U.S. will transfer two ships, a research vessel and a U.S. Coast Guard cutter, to the Philippine Navy as part of its "ironclad commitment" to helping fortify the Philippines' maritime security.

The U.S. military maneuvers in the past month involving ships and B-52 bombers were intended to underline that the U.S. won't allow freedom of navigation to be compromised by China's vast claim to the disputed waters.

Beijing objected, but the U.S. actions were welcomed by American allies such as the Philippines, Japan and Australia, which are all APEC founding members.

China sent its top envoy, Wang Yi, to Manila last week to ask Philippine officials not to include the long-simmering disputes in the APEC agenda, paving the way for Xi's attendance at the summit.

But U.S. officials plan to further highlight the territorial disputes during Obama's stop in Manila and later on in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where he is to attend the East Asia Summit, an 18-nation bloc that also includes China and U.S. allies Japan and the Philippines.

The Philippines signed an agreement with Vietnam on Tuesday to elevate their relationship to a strategic partnership, enabling the countries, which are most at odds with Beijing in the South China Sea, to deepen trade, maritime and defense cooperation.

Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang said he and Philippine President Benigno Aquino shared their concerns over recent developments in the South China Sea "affecting trust, peace, security and stability in the region."

"We also reaffirmed the importance of ensuring the stability, maritime security, safety and freedom of navigation and of flight in the South China Sea," he told reporters.

Before APEC leaders began arriving, officials were divided over whether to issue a statement on the Paris attacks or let each leader speak on his or her own.

After debating behind closed doors over the weekend, they initially forged a compromise: a paragraph on terrorism to be added to the statement released at the end of the summit on Thursday.

There was a shared desire to call for bringing "to justice those who perpetuated the horrific developments in Paris last Friday," Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters.

He said the ministers' comments on the attacks were "personal expressions of sympathy."

"Everyone who spoke, spoke the same language," del Rosario said.

One diplomat, however, had rejected any mention of the attacks in the statement, fearing it would draw the Islamic State group's attention to APEC, said a Southeast Asian diplomat who attended the meetings. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because the conversations were not intended to be public.

The U.S. wanted a strong statement.

"This is an attack on the entire civilized world and the entire international community and APEC represents a very important group of countries," said U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken. "It would be, I think, appropriate and necessary for those countries, those economies which are so significant to make a strong statement."

Japan, likewise, favored a strong stance, said deputy government press secretary Koichi Mizushima.