22 August 2019
Leung Chun-ying (first left, second row) poses for a group photo with other APEC leaders in Beijing. Photo: HK government
Leung Chun-ying (first left, second row) poses for a group photo with other APEC leaders in Beijing. Photo: HK government

Why HK and Taiwan were wallflowers at APEC summit

The week-long Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing culminated in a heads-of-government meeting on Tuesday. Prior to the close, all the leaders lined up for a group photo Monday evening at the Water Cube, or the National Aquatics Center. 

Among those enjoying the moment were Hong Kong’s chief executive Leung Chun-ying and former Taiwan vice president Vincent Siew — the latter attended the forum in an unofficial capacity as a representative of “Chinese Taipei”.

For the duo, the photo-op came in handy to mark their presence, as they were found missing from most events earlier during the summit.

Hong Kong gained full APEC membership in 1991 and since then the territory’s top official –- from the colonial governor to the post-handover chief executive — has been participating in the annual leaders’ meetings. But this year for Leung, his trip to Beijing was more like a duty visit than as an APEC VIP guest.

Media reports on Leung have focused only on his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping — with particular reference to his work report in the wake of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy street protests — and what the boss feels about Leung’s work and the situation in the special administrative region.

Leung also led a group of secretaries and paid visits to the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, the National People’s Congress and the National Development and Reform Commission. All of these activities were unrelated to the APEC summit.

Leung could have used the summit to allay the world’s concern and assure government heads and business leaders that the ongoing umbrella movement has had a minimal impact on Hong Kong’s business and financial sectors.

The gathering could have also served as a great opportunity for Leung to reiterate Hong Kong’s rule of law, social stability, autonomy under the “one country, two systems” principle, and its position as a prime financial and trade hub.

At a time when some observers are expressing doubts about the territory’s political and economic future, Leung could have explained to the international community the Hong Kong government’s tough stance over the student protests, and spruce up the administration’s image that has been dented by some police excesses.

But as things turned out, Leung merely chose to stay politically correct in a gesture of allegiance to Beijing as he prioritized “internal diplomacy” (a term he likes to use to describe the territory’s engagement with the mainland) while doing nothing to promote Hong Kong’s hard-won international prominence.

Also, as Hong Kong is in talks with a number of countries, including those in Southeast Asia, for free trade agreements, Leung was expected to meet leaders to grease the process.

But not much happened in that direction. Leung merely attended an APEC Business Advisory Council dialogue and a CEO summit, and the only foreign leader he held a bilateral meeting with was Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.

China lost no time at the summit drumming up support for some of its initiatives including an Asia-Pacific free-trade zone and Silk Road economic belt, while the United States was promoting its Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Apart from a hollow “super-connector” slogan, Hong Kong’s leader, meanwhile, was yet to come up with any own strategy to cope with the changing landscape in trade and economic integration, even as key rivals such as Singapore and South Korea have been reaping fruits with FTA deals.

As for Taiwan, it was also in the shadows at the summit.

Media on the island have been crying foul at Beijing’s deliberate “downgrading” of Taiwan’s international status as Siew’s title at the event was director of the Cross-Straits Common Market Foundation, an unofficial organization.

That may be just a matter of diplomatic protocol, what is more worrying for Taiwan is the free-trade agreement (FTA) that Beijing will soon ink with Seoul.

Just like the Hong Kong-Singapore rivalry, South Korea is Taiwan’s arch competitor in trade as most of the exports of the two nations overlap –- both are heavily focused on semiconductors, electronics and other technology products.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs has warned that the Sino-Korean FTA pack could drag down the island’s gross domestic product by 0.5 percent. The manufacturing sector could suffer a 3.85- percentage point dent in output value as US$137 billion worth of Korean goods will enter China tariff-free as calculated on last year’s data, according to reports.

Meanwhile, implementation of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, Taiwan’s de facto FTA with China, has stalled after this year’s Sunflower student movement held up the approval of a service trade agreement in Taiwan’s parliament. Subsequent negotiations on goods trade agreement have also been suspended indefinitely and Beijing is seen in no hurry at all to resume talks.

Taiwan’s tepid economy will have to brace for another crippling blow with no prospects of any breakthrough with the mainland. With Xi ruling out a meeting with his Taiwan counterpart Ma Ying-jeou and Siew having been given the cold shoulder, the island indeed has much to worry about.

– Contact the writer at [email protected]


Hong Kong’s leader Leung Chun-ying (L) is received by Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan prior to the APEC summit reception dinner. Photo: HK government

Leung meets Wang Guangya, director of the Chinese State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office during his APEC summit trip to Beijing. Photo: HK government

EJ Insight writer

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