All Eyes on APEC

The Philippines plays host to this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Conference(APEC) Summit and naturally the eyes of the international media will be focusing heavily on how events unfold.

It is expected after all – the heads-of-state from 21 different states will be in Manila and the roll lists US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Matters pertaining to the economy, national security and foreign policy will be discussed and thus the event is a vital opportunity for the Philippines to negotiate important trade deals, score much-needed defense acquisitions and find a resolution to the ongoing West Philippine Sea dispute.

President Aquino’s bargaining power relies heavily on how well he impresses these heads-of-state. The country last played host to an APEC Summit in 1996, during the Ramos presidency and at a time when the government was still rebuilding itself from the disastrous crises that hit during the Cory Aquino presidency. The latter’s son is now in power and he is tasked with showing the world just how far the Philippines have gone since then.

The most obvious area where the government will be tested is security. The tragedy of the Paris attacks will still be fresh in the minds of these heads-of-state, not to mention the fact that the Islamic State (IS) have vowed to conduct more attacks on Western leaders involved in the bombing of their territories in Iraq and Syria. That criteria alone puts President Obama, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Mendevev of Russia, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia and Prime Minister John Key of New Zealand as targets.

If history was to be considered, Manila is susceptible to terrorist attacks even when it declares to be on “full alert”. Take the case of the 2000 Rizal Day bombings, which caused over 22 deaths and 120 injuries – despite intelligence reports warning of a planned attack. Islamist militants in the Philippines have also successfully bombed the House of Representatives in 2007, killing six while injuring 12, and just in 2011 planted a bomb on a bus driving through the city of Makati, killing five and wounding 13.

The dates of these bombings did not have any international relevance, yet they were targeted. It would not be inconceivable for a gathering of numerous heads-of-state will be a target too and Manila needs to be prepared for that.

Another aspect that is being discussed in social media is how Manila will handle its horrendous traffic congestion problems. The city was named last month as the ‘worst place to drive in the world’ and that is no feat to proud of. Traffic congestion will not only put off potential foreign investors, due to infrastructure inefficiencies and as a barrier of profitable trade, but would also put a stain on the country’s record as a climate change crusader.

Following Typhoon Haiyan’s devastation in 2013, much of the international community saw the Philippines as an example of worsening effects of climate change. In fact, the visit of French president Francois Hollande and several French actors early this year was to inaugurate the country as a global leader. Having thousands of carbon emitting vehicles clog up streets, worsening the air quality of the capital city will definitely rub leaders a different way – especially Canada’s Justin Trudeau and US President Obama who are pushing for green energy reforms in their own respective countries.

Will President Aquino be able to push for accords on the field of renewable energy research or score the transfer of renewable energy technology from other APEC nations? Japan and South Korea are seen as leaders in green energy technology, the task for Aquino will be to see if he can move the country’s green energy agenda forward in this APEC Summit.

As with other high-profile functions in Manila, the local government has detained several homeless people in the city – including young orphans. Walls have also been blocked to hide the shantytowns prominent all over the city, sparking outrage among human rights groups calling the measures ‘inhumane’.

The homelessness and shanties in the capital are big problems, but they have always been there – no administration seems to have made strides in putting a permanent fix to this problem. Rather than constantly using a ‘band-aid’ remedy to these problems, the government should look to permanently resettle the homeless and those with inadequate or unsafe housing.

The perception is that these measures are being done to impress world leaders and pose Manila as a pleasant city that does not have these problems. Sadly, the measure is a shallow one and is tantamount to the mummification of pharaohs in ancient Egypt – beautifying the corpse and wrapping it with plasters but the rotting corpse still remains underneath. If the Aquino administration as well as the local government of Manila is serious in transforming Manila as a premier city, there would be no need to hide such realities. Instead, a premier city would not have these problems to begin with.

A permanent re-housing would not only provide a more long-term solution, it would also spare us from flak from human rights organisations. It would also save us from hiding the homeless and the shanties when the next international high-profile event comes to Manila, all the while giving a humane relief to the woes of Manila’s homeless.

There are numerous challenges that the government will be tested on in this APEC Summit and with the eyes of the world fixed on this event, how well Aquino responds to such challenges will be all the more important. The Philippines is in an upward trajectory at the moment, thanks mainly to the President’s reputation as an anti-corruption crusader and implementing much-needed reforms in government. As he serves his final few months in office, may APEC be the culmination of all the seeds he planted during his administration.

A wrong move for Aquino could throw away all he has strived for.

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