The U.S. government is to host the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit on November 15–16, 2023. However, two leaders of the 21-member group, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive John Lee and Russian President Vladimir Putin, are missing from the invitation list.
APEC is an inter-governmental forum that promotes free trade throughout the Asia-Pacific region. The location of the meeting rotates annually among the 21 member economies (except Taiwan).
When asked about the invitation arrangement during the press briefing on October 2, 2023, the spokesperson of the U.S. State Council said:
We’ve said we recognise our obligations as the host of APEC, but we are going to honour our sanctions rules and regulations in making invitations. I’ve been asked about that in the context of other individuals. I would also say I would be highly surprised if Vladimir Putin, who has been at times reluctant to leave his own borders recently for fear of arrest for the war crimes he’s committed — I’d be highly surprised if he wanted to show up at a meeting in San Francisco.
The next day, John Lee told the press that he had yet to see the APEC invitation and recited that the U.S. government was obligated to invite all leaders of the 21 economies to the Summit.
The uninvited: Vladimir Putin and John Lee
In February 2022, the U.S. government sanctioned the Russian President for his invasion of Ukraine. In March 2023, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for his war crimes against children in Ukraine.
As for John Lee, he has been sanctioned by the U.S. government since 2020 for the violent crackdown against the 2019 pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong. Since early June, exiled activists from Hong Kong have been calling to ban the city Chief Executive from APEC. Anna Kwok, Executive Director of the Washington-based Hong Kong Democracy Council and one of the eight wanted “fugitives” with a global bounty put on her head thanks to her human rights advocacy work, is one of the most vocal advocators:
He's the man who has put a $1M HKD bounty on my head. He's the man who has orchestrated the far-reaching transnational repression.#BarJohnLee
— Anna Kwok 郭鳳儀 (@AnnaKwokFY) July 3, 2023
The U.S.'s decision to bar Lee from the APEC meeting was revealed by the Washington Post in late July. Since then, the Hong Kong government has been appealing to the U.S. government to let him attend the trade talks.
Chief Executive John Lee:
“According to APEC guidelines and protocol, the organiser should send (an) invitation to the leader of the respective economies.”
“I am still waiting for the invitation letter to be sent to me.” pic.twitter.com/4wuHV8teP9
— Aaron Busch (@tripperhead) September 26, 2023
The series of news about Lee’s APEC invitation has turned into a joke as Facebook users rushed to leave sarcastic comments under related news threads and commentaries. Below are some typical comments:
Now, we are under one country, one system. Hong Kong is just a small Chinese city and does not qualify for international meetings!
The U.S. decision is logical. Hong Kong is part of China, why does it need an independent invitation?
Add oil, and keep waiting.
Xi Jinping's APEC attendance
After the high-level diplomatic meeting between China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi and White House national security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Malta, many have anticipated that Chinese President Xi Jinping will attend the APEC summit.
As China started preparing the country's delegations for San Francisco, Hong Kong's Lee appealed to the U.S. government again on September 26. The next day, Wang added weight by urging the U.S. government to fulfil its obligations as a host when asked if Xi would attend the leaders’ summit in November:
When asked about Chinese President’s attendance of the upcoming #APEC Leaders’ Meeting in the United States.
China’s Wang Yi said that China is willing to meet international expectation and plays a constructive role for the success of APEC meeting this year….the US should… pic.twitter.com/BJYsQWBS1R
— Serena Xue Dong (@theserenadong) September 26, 2023
Local news outlets’ commenters viewed Wang’s statement as turning John Lee’s APEC invitation into a bargaining chip between China and the U.S. for the upcoming APEC meeting. The news also attracted nationalistic responses on Weibo, such as the following:
China should boycott the APEC summit if the Hong Kong Chief Executive is banned from the meeting… Don’t let the international society look down on us. If we don’t stay firm, next time, other hosts will do the same.
However, Wang’s leverage seemingly wasn't enough. One week later, on October 3, John Lee is still waiting for his invitation.
Judging from the U.S. State Council’s press briefing on October 2, it is unlikely that Lee will get his ticket to APEC.
This result, however, can serve as a needy nationalistic explanation for Xi’s likely absence from the upcoming summit, among other factors:
Will China's President Xi Jinping attend the Apec summit and meet Biden there? Some factors might stand in the way from China's slowing economy to a fear of being embarrassed and a belief that US-China ties would remain frosty even if the leaders met.https://t.co/SuhZlq5tk9
— Dewey Sim 沈炜淳 (@deweysim) October 2, 2023
Xi Jinping’s absence from last month’s G20 summit sparked some speculations around China’s attempt to reshape global governance. At the same time, India — the G20 host and China's major rival in South Asia — earned much credit and strengthened its leadership in the global south.
While Xi has yet to confirm his attendance at the upcoming APEC, India, will be present at the summit as an observer, hoping to become an official APEC member.