Repressive Vietnam a poor host for Apec
Vietnam will in coming days host an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in Danang that’s sure to bolster its international stature amid increasingly complex regional and global developments. Unfortunately, it’s got off to a bad start by cracking down on activists in preparation for the arrival of world leaders.
Economically speaking, the leadership in Hanoi seems to fully understand shifting global circumstances, particularly the rise of populist protectionist ideologies such as those that swept Donald Trump to power in the United States and triggered Britain’s exit from the European Union. Yet such phenomena run counter to the founding principles of Apec, which groups 21 national economies that depend to a great extent on free trade and globalisation. Apec emerged in 1989 against a spreading backdrop of multilateralism, just as the Cold War came to an end. That was only three years after Vietnam began its own “Doi Moi” programme aimed at transforming a socialist society into a market economy.
Vietnam joined Apec in November 1998, seeking to benefit from globalisation and the fiscal liberalisation that came with it. It has done so, and handsomely, its economy growing briskly and with few pauses.
But the Apec countries – collectively representing 39 percent of the world’s population, 57 percent of all GDP and 49 percent of all trade – now face a fresh challenge as the US shows less interest in multilateralism. President Trump’s decision to withdraw America from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) came as a sharp blow to a dozen nations, including Vietnam. Apec is currently striving to achieve its so-called Bogor goals for free trade and investment by 2020. Trump’s contrariness threatens to stall that as well.
But it is crucial that Apec stay the course and play its formidable role in assuring the world sustainable growth, protecting it from the effects of climate change, fostering a digital economy, curbing inequities and offsetting the negative impacts of globalisation. All of this will require a massive collective effort, and Vietnam is expected to urge its partners at the summit to pull together.
Its voice loses considerable authority, however, when dissidents are being rounded up ahead of the meeting to prevent them from using it as a platform to spotlight domestic issues. One student was recently sentenced to six years in jail for distributing “anti-state propaganda”. Other social activists have been arrested and prosecuted. Analysts say the government is deliberately silencing critics to avoid embarrassment when the Apec leaders are assembled.
Apec is solely concerned with economic matters – human rights are not on its agenda. But Human Rights Watch is correct in pressing foreign delegates at the summit to pressure Hanoi on the subject. If Trump and his ilk don’t care about the suppression of freedoms, it falls to other members of Apec to argue that globalisation requires global unity on such issues.
It matters not that Vietnam has never championed democracy. What matters is that nearly 30 dissidents who posed no security threat have been silenced for merely criticising their government. The regime is only embarrassing itself by acting so insecure, and insecurity among any member-countries undermines all efforts to achieve Apec’s noble goals.
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