To the skeptics of Great Man political theory, may we present the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, 2014 version.
Not in recent history has a big-name international meeting been caught up with such drama, much of it personal. The biggest questions are not to what extremes China will go to fake its image – shutting schools and factories, cancelling weddings and booting cars from roads to make Beijing feel like a more livable city – or what policy pronouncements will be made. Count on them being bland, and lacking in critical detail.
No, the real questions are more of the Mean Girls variety. In the gilded cafeteria that is the resort built for the summit meetings, who will sit with whom? Will Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin exchange more than a hello? Will Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping shake hands? How will Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi get along?
In normal times, watching the personal conduct of the political elite makes for good sport and not much more. Amid the fractious international arena of the past year, the interactions between these four men – most of them members of a new fraternity of big personalities with massive arsenals – stand to have global consequences.
Between Mssrs. Obama and Putin lie escalating military and economic tensions, and the shudders of a new Cold War.
Between Mssrs. Abe and Xi lie the loathing of billions of people, and the prospect that mutual enmity will spark violent conflagration.
Between Mssrs. Xi and Obama lie a high-stakes geopolitical dance for influence in Asia, and sway over the world's most important trading areas.
The importance of the meeting was underscored Friday afternoon, when China's state-run Xinhua news agency reported a breakthrough in talks between Japan and China. The two sides agreed to create a crisis management system over East China Sea issues and to resume political, diplomatic and security talks. Japan also agreed to acknowledge that its claim to several islands is disputed – something it had until now steadfastly refused to do.
For nearly a year, Japanese officials have looked to APEC as a time when they might finally bridge the dangerous chasm that has grown between their two nations, marked by close military approaches at sea and in the air, not to mention a daily flow of angry diatribe. What Tokyo has wanted is a chance to have Mr. Abe sit down with Mr. Xi for more than a perfunctory get-together. Despite running the world's second and third-largest economies, and despite overseeing one of the largest trading relationships on earth, the two men have yet to formally meet.
That the pursuit of a tete-a-tete has spawned seemingly real progress just days before the summit underscores the potential benefits of bringing together top leadership. Indeed, it offers some legitimacy for the very existence of an institution like APEC, whose importance has of late been eclipsed by other groups as China and the U.S. both struggle for control in Asia.
Mr. Xi and Mr. Obama have met several times, but their relationship remains the central nexus for the often-intense rivalry in the background of Asian international political dealings, with duelling alliances and pan-national trade talks. What trust they can establish will help to shape the disputes over military strength, spying and corporate conduct that have brought friction to the so-called G2 – and the Asia-Pacific region more broadly.
Perhaps more important will be whether Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin do more than exchange glances, and whether there is any trust to be built at all. Both sides have said a formal meeting will not take place. But despite recent attacks that have often been personal in nature – Mr. Putin accusing Mr. Obama of being hostile toward Russia, and Mr. Obama calling out Russian "aggression" – the two sides have also expressed a desire for informal talks in Beijing.
Though hopes of a U.S.-Russia breakthrough are about as weak as the ruble these days, there will be much to discuss, if the two are able to sit down together.
As Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said to RIA Novosti this week, "leaders communicate at international summits, one way or another."