A bid by Washington to use an upcoming APEC summit to pillory the World Trade Organization has left member states deeply divided on the eve of leaders' arrivals.
The United States insistence that members of APEC agree to publicly criticize the WTO — saying the organization is not working and needs major reform — has prompted Chinese opposition.
The issue is currently derailing an effort by foreign ministers meeting in Port Moresby to agree to a joint communique — an embarrassment for what is meant to be a bloc united in promoting free trade.
"We've made significant progress on our joint ministerial statement," said Papua New Guinea's foreign minister and host Rimbink Pato, but admitted that the text had not yet been agreed.
"There is potential agreement on many of the issues" he said, adding that diplomats were battling to reach compromise over the statement's final language.
Some APEC members are said to agree with the basic sentiment of Washington's complaint, but disagree over the strength of the language proposed by Donald Trump's administration.
Others are concerned that APEC is being used as a battering ram to attack an organization that has underpinned global trading rules for decades.
Trump top foreign policy advisor John Bolton is known for his hardline opposition to multilateral organizations, believing they constrain the world's only superpower.
Trump has made no secret of his belief that China has not acted in good faith since joining the WTO in 2001 and that it should be subject to the same trading rules as advanced economies.
He has threatened to pull the United States out of the WTO if it does not "shape up."
The drive to tie APEC to that cause is evidence that his administration is beginning to take concrete measures to make those changes a reality.
Trump's China bashing and tough talk on trade is deeply popular among his dwindling base of political support, particularly in rust belt states where manufacturing has been moved overseas and where he must do well to win re-election in 2020.
This year's APEC summit in Papua New Guinea threatens to be overshadowed by America and China's tussle for influence in the Asia-Pacific region.
Trump's decision to pull out of a regional trade deal and skip the summit entirely has led even close allies to question America's commitment to the region.
© 2018 AFP