VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — Asia-Pacific leaders met on Saturday for annual trade talks, hoping to present a united front amid a gloomy world economy but with team spirit frayed by worsening territorial rows.
The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, set this year in the Russian Far East port city of Vladivostok, is meant to build goodwill among the 21 members in their effort to break down trade barriers.
But it opens with APEC giants China, Japan and South Korea embroiled in various territorial disputes that have fanned intense nationalist flames, with U.S.-Chinese relations also heating up over the South China Sea.
Speaking at a business forum Saturday in Vladivostok, Chinese President Hu Jintao called for all countries to ensure the tensions did not escalate into more serious conflicts.
“To maintain peace and stability as well as the sound momentum of economic growth in the Asia-Pacific, it is in the interests of all countries in the region, it is our shared responsibility,” Hu said.
APEC members Vietnam and the Philippines accuse China of ramping up a campaign of intimidation to enforce its claims to virtually all of the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, the United States has angered China by calling for a code of conduct among nations involved and insisting that freedom of navigation in the strategic sea is in Washington’s interest.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—who is filling in for President Barack Obama—said that she would not apologize for promoting American interests in the region.
“The United States—certainly I—am not going to shy away from standing up for our strategic interests, and in expressing clearly where we differ,” Clinton told reporters.
Adding to the APEC tensions, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said he would not hold summit talks with Hu nor South Korea’s Lee Myung-Bak amid flare-ups in separate disputes over long-contested islands.
China-Japan relations soured yet again over the past week after Japanese media, citing government sources, said Tokyo had agreed to buy a group of Chinese-claimed islands in the East China Sea from their Japanese landowners.
China responded by saying it would take all “necessary measures” to defend its claims to the Diaoyu islands, known in Japanese as the Senkaku chain.
A separate dispute over yet another group of islands claimed by both Japan and South Korea has added to the mix.
Events further afield are also set to take up valuable time in the two-day summit.
Clinton met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday morning. No details were immediately available of the talks but they were expected to focus on deep divisions on the Syria conflict.
Russia is the main diplomatic and military supporter of President Bashar al-Assad, who has led a clampdown that activists say has killed more than 26,000 people.
Russia and China have vetoed two U.N. draft resolutions calling for tougher action on Syria.
APEC leaders insist territorial and other diplomatic issues have little bearing on the official agenda, and that progress will still be made in opening up economies within a bloc that accounts for 44% of global trade.
They will jointly call for greater efforts to “support growth and foster financial stability and restore confidence”, according to a draft leaders’ statement that voices concern over the eurozone crisis.
It warns of mounting risks to the region from the events in Europe and pledges to work to stoke domestic demand to counter falling exports.
The assembled leaders are also expected to approve a deal reached Thursday by their trade ministers to cut tariffs on dozens of “green” products in the Asia-Pacific to boost trade in the goods and help protect the environment.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government has poured $20 billion into reviving Vladivostok, Russia’s largest Pacific port, in hopes of turning it into an investment hub and promoting his nation’s Pacific ambitions.