NOW that the painfully disruptive APEC summit has finally reached its end, we can sit back and take a calmer look at whether the sacrifice imposed on the public was worth it.
While the week-long circus was not without some value, its results were rather lean, and it seems unlikely that APEC 2015 will be remembered for anything substantially productive.
There are a couple of obvious reasons for this. The one that the Filipino public is most aware of, naturally, is the complete disaster of the Aquino Administration’s management of the whole affair. Whatever revenue the summit attendees brought into the country must pale in comparison with the economic losses incurred.
Those are still being tallied, but initial estimates include a $2 billion loss for the country’s airline industry, and something between P16 billion and P30 billion in overall losses due to businesses being bereft of employees and customers, or even being forced to temporarily close, a sharp reduction in financial market and banking sector activity, interruptions to the flow of goods to and from Manila’s ports, and steep losses for the public transit sector in and around Metro Manila.
As a thumbnail illustration, my own APEC experience, which may be representative of that of several hundred thousands of other people living south of the city, cost me roughly P5,000 in lost income and extra expenses due to making repeated futile attempts to reach my office, a mild sunburn, and, as a personal bonus from Monday night’s epic “Escape from Manila” evening commute, a broken toe and sprained ankle from stumbling around unfamiliar neighborhoods in the rainy dark with thousands of other people in search of some kind of transport home.
For all that trouble we would certainly hope that something profitable for the Philippines would have emerged from the summit, but it was generally a disappointment in that respect. The most substantial gains for the country took place on the sidelines: A trade pact with Chile that was signed before the APEC meetings even began, and an offer from US President Barack Obama for two more hand-me-down vessels to augment the woefully underequipped Philippine Navy, as well as a promise of additional defense aid to America’s Southeast Asian allies in general. And in a minor but nonetheless very welcome gesture, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised the Philippines he would “go after” the Canadian firms responsible for exporting several dozen containers’ worth of garbage to the Philippines more than two years ago.
As I pointed out in Thursday’s column, there were some promising developments that emerged from the APEC Ministerial Meeting early in the week, particularly in terms of support for the continuing development of the China-led Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP), the setting of clear targets for renewable energy use, and the advancement of plans for better regional integration of climate change and disaster response preparedness, labor mobility, and educational exchange. Of course, APEC has traditionally been characterized by a lack of follow-through—a review of the records shows that only about half of the initiatives launched in previous years’ summits have ever made it beyond the aspirational statement stage—but at least the ones raised in this year’s meeting are clear enough to provide some sort of yardstick with which to monitor and measure progress, and are things that are worth hoping there will be progress toward actual implementation.
As for the summit as a whole, however, represented by the Leaders’ Meeting, the purpose of APEC as an economic bloc was very quickly derailed by geopolitical issues, and accomplished almost nothing. This was, in part, due to current events, which nobody could rightly ignore; with the Daesh group having staged three spectacular terrorist attacks in two weeks—the downing of the Russian jetliner in the Sinai, the suicide bombing in Beirut, and the attacks in Paris—global terrorism and its fallout is properly a priority issue.
(As a side note, I’ve made it a personal policy to no longer refer to them as the Islamic State or ISIS, so as not to help these murderous barbarians advance their message. I have read that they find the term “Daesh” insulting, and have threatened to cut the tongue out of anyone caught using it. Come and get it, you punks.)
But the other reason the APEC meeting got off on what, in my opinion, was the wrong track, was the surprisingly disappointing combativeness US President Obama brought with him to Manila. Prior to the summit, the Philippine government said they did not intend to raise the issue of the country’s maritime dispute with China, which, even though they were criticized for it by some, was a sensible decision in the context of an economic summit. The matter is already under adjudication by the UN, notwithstanding China’s refusal to acknowledge or participate in those proceedings, and is otherwise best left to direct discussions with the Chinese government.
Obama, however, was determined to pick a fight over it, which accomplished nothing but to rub a few nerves—Chinese President Xi, in his speech, essentially told the US to “butt out”—and divert energy and attention from more productive matters. It’s not that the South China Sea (or if you prefer, West Philippine Sea) issue is unimportant, it’s that it is out of place in a summit where the large majority of represented economies have nothing at all to do with it.
Little wonder, then, that the APEC summit overall feels like something we survived, rather than resulting in something fairly earned for our trouble. At least it’s something we won’t have to endure again this generation.