The modern metropolis of Da Nang, Vietnam's third largest city, is playing host to the APEC leaders summit. The city was damaged by a typhoon Nov. 4, but repairs were made in time for this week's summit, the second time Vietnam has hosted the event.

Vietnam is confident that it can successfully host the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ meeting this week in the coastal city of Da Nang, now transformed into a modern metropolis after suffering severely during the Vietnam War.

During the past year, the government has meticulously and thoroughly prepared for the event, the second time Vietnam has been host to APEC, the first time being in Hanoi in 2006. This time, however, will prove to be challenging not only because of the political climate but the actual climate as well.

Just days before business and political leaders from 21 Pacific Rim countries — including US President Donald Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin — were to arrive in the country’s third largest city, many central provinces, and including Da Nang, were badly damaged by a typhoon.

Damrey, the 12th major storm to hit Vietnam this year, slammed into the central coastline November 4. The Vietnam Disaster Management Authority said that at least 69 people died, while 30 others were missing as a result of the rain and floods that came with the storm.

At Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage site about 30 kilometers south of Da Nang that was due to host the spouses of APEC leaders, people had to use boats to get around. Vietnamese authorities have worked to repair storm damage to ensure that all APEC-related meetings, notably the two-day summit that starts today, go well.

Host faces adverse political and economic issues

Besides having to cope with the challenging weather, Vietnam is hosting the APEC summit at a time when the region is facing an unfavorable political and economic environment.

Summit host Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang, said: “APEC is at a crucial juncture” and the Asia-Pacific region and the world are confronted with numerous challenges. Among these are the slowdown of international economic integration and rising protectionism.

As a result, Vietnam and other countries in the region find it difficult to pursue APEC’s commitments such as “promoting trade and investment liberalization and facilitation, supporting an open and inclusive multilateral trading system … and exerting greater efforts for [the region’s] peace, stability, and prosperity.”

Although he didn’t mention the US or Donald Trump by name, the Vietnamese leader undoubtedly had in mind the American president’s protectionist posture and his high-profile withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

‘America first’ upsets Asia Pacific economies

Indeed, the Trump administration’s “America first” foreign policy is posing a severe challenge to Asia Pacific economies, notably export-led ones such as Vietnam. The country of 90 million people was widely tipped as one of the biggest beneficiaries of the original TPP that included 12 members. Even without the world’s largest economy, like the other remaining countries, it would significantly benefit from the trade agreement.

… pushing other APEC members to adopt a strong stance against protectionism at this summit will be tough for the host …

But, pushing other APEC members to adopt a strong stance against protectionism at this summit will be tough for the host and even more for it to push ahead with the TPP 2.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who criticized Trump’s protectionist policy at the G-20 summit in Hamburg in July, mobilized the other G-20 members to adopt a relatively robust stand against protectionism.

In their final statement, the world’s leading economies committed to keeping global markets open, “noting the importance of reciprocal and mutually advantageous trade and investment frameworks and the principle of non-discrimination.”

They also pledged to “continue to fight protectionism, including all unfair trade practices, and recognize the role of legitimate trade defense instruments in this regard.”

By “[recognizing] the role of legitimate trade defense instruments,” Merkel and the other leaders apparently made a concession on Trump’s protectionist trade policies. Still, the joint communiqué was pro-trade.

Under her leadership, the G-20 summit achieved tangible  results, prompting European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to publicly praise her.

It is unclear whether, as the 2017 APEC host, Vietnam can play a similar leading role in reaching a joint declaration with such pro-trade wording and achieve all the objectives.

Germany and the EU, which went to the G-20 summit with a milestone trade accord with Japan, ended it on another triumphant pro-trade note by announcing Sept. 21 as the effective date of an ambitious and comprehensive trade pact with Canada.

Promote multilateral trade as the way forward

Similarly, a concrete way for Vietnam and other regional countries to show they support free trade and international integration is to express willingness to advance multilateral trade agreements, such as the TPP.

However, the risk of upsetting the US and China, its biggest export market and largest trading partner, respectively, means it’s unlikely that Vietnam will proactively advocate for the TPP 2 during the two-day conference.

Yet if Vietnam manages to foster a “spirit of constructive cooperation for mutual benefit,” it can help “[create a] new dynamism [and foster] a shared future” for the region.

More crucially, successfully hosting the summit, Vietnam’s most important diplomatic gathering in years and Da Nang’s biggest international event ever, will enhance the country’s and the city’s international reputation.

Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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