APEC

How China can lead the Asia-Pacific

January 29, 2014: 2:16 PM ET

As host of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum this year, the world's second-largest economy must address three issues.

By Curtis S. Chin

Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono speaks during a news confrence on the final day of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian resort island of Bali on Oct. 8, 2013

Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono speaks during a news confrence on the final day of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian resort island of Bali on Oct. 8, 2013

FORTUNE -- At an annual get-together last year of some of the world's biggest economies, China was left as the dominant force as U.S. President Barack Obama missed out on the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum Cooperation meeting in Bali, Indonesia. Obama sent U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to fill his spot as he tried to avoid a government shutdown at home, but it just wasn't the same. Chinese President Xi Jinping stole the show, focusing his keynote speech on China's economic overhaul.

Obama's absence was frequently noted; whether he'll miss another APEC forum remains to be seen.

Regardless, China will stand out again this year as the forum rotates to the world's second-largest economy -- at least that was the sentiment captured in the title of an annual briefing on APEC that I moderated in early January at the Asia Society in New York.  Billed as "APEC Briefing 2013-2014: China Takes the Reins," the discussion quickly turned to China's economic rise and its role in Asia.

In the months leading to the forum in October, APEC working groups and senior officials from 21 Asia-Pacific economies, from Chile to Russia, will continue to push efforts to promote free trade and economic cooperation across the region.

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As the host country, China will have the opportunity to shape the agenda and move beyond rhetoric toward a more peaceful and prosperous Asia-Pacific. The last time the country played host was in 2001 in Shanghai; this is a chance for leaders to address three critical issues.

Corruption

Corruption remains one of China's biggest economic challenges. Last year's downfall and conviction of former Chinese politico Bo Xilai may signal the country is finally getting serious about corruption, or it may have done nothing more than deepen the divide between political factions. Whatever the outcome, anyone looking to do business in China is waiting for officials to clean up its politics.

The U.S. is encouraging China to make corruption a major focus at this year's forum, but China has yet to fully respond, according to a senior U.S. official for APEC. Doing so, however, could lead other nations in the region to follow.

Press freedom

As the APEC host, China can welcome or tighten restrictions of on-the-ground coverage.

The last time the country hosted the summit in 2001, the country relaxed a range of controls on media coverage. It remains to be seen, however, whether Beijing will allow that to happen this year, especially given that international media based in the city have faced uncertainties over visa renewals. And Chinese media, particularly social media, face growing restrictions.

How Beijing will treat the media could say a lot about how open and transparent China's government is.

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Regional cooperation and integration:

With China working behind the scenes purportedly through then-host Cambodia, the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations annual summit came to a close in 2012 with much rancor and for the first time ever without a concluding diplomatic communiqué.  The reason? Territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

China will have the opportunity to put politics and history aside to use APEC to further drive economic ties, including with leaders in Tokyo and Taipei.

Time will tell if China will fully use its opportunity as APEC host to showcase not just its impressive economic growth since 2001, but also steps toward becoming a more confident and responsible Pacific power.  The world is watching.

Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush (2007-2010), is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC.  Follow him on Twitter @CurtisSChin.

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