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APEC to bring world leaders to San Francisco: Here’s what we know so far

U.S. President Joe Biden, left; Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, center; and Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, right, hold a meeting on the G7 Leaders’ Summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 20, 2023. | Jonathan Ernst/AFP/Pool

In a tough year for business—and for the city’s reputation—San Francisco will be thrown into the global spotlight this November by hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.

Preparations are well underway for the summit, which brings together major heads of state, government officials and business executives. It’s a tall order—but if all goes well, a successful conference could mean big rewards for San Francisco, not to mention for the Biden Administration and the trade group itself. 

San Francisco hosted the APEC Women and the Economy Summit in 2011, where then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton oversaw a declaration to improve women’s access to better jobs, education and leadership roles. That was a subsidiary of the APEC summit, held that year in Hawaii. This year, it’s San Francisco’s turn to host the main event.

“APEC represents a singular opportunity for San Francisco to shine on a global stage,” said Alex Bastian, president of the Hotel Council of San Francisco. “The result could be billions in new investments for the city, our region, and the state.” 

What Does It Mean for San Francisco? 

APEC is a chance for San Francisco to burnish an image battered by drug abuse, homelessness, petty crime and blight. 

Seventy-eight years ago this month, San Francisco hosted the founding of the United Nations at what is now the War Memorial and Performing Arts Center on Van Ness Avenue. A stone’s throw away is United Nations Plaza, which has become a hotbed of drug activity. The irony is hard to ignore. 

Some local policymakers are worried that San Francisco is unprepared for the scrutiny that could come with hosting the high-profile, sustainability-themed summit. 

Nick Josefowitz, policy chief at the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), wrote that the spotlight won’t be flattering if public transit systems aren’t properly funded. 

“Rather than being impressed by our climate leadership, the world will be shocked to discover California’s climate hypocrisy. It will find that buses and trains aren’t taking people to work, school, or essential services,” Josefowitz wrote in a June 8 article

In addition, there are myriad balancing acts involved with hosting an event for 21 heads of state, ministers and the business interests they bring along. 

Working with the White House and State Department, the city is in the midst of planning, promotion and fundraising for the meetings and events around them. The Board of Supervisors even passed some exceptions to the city’s behested payments rules for APEC fundraising. 

San Francisco also needs to put its best foot forward for the scores of VIPs who may want to tour, shop and dine in the City by the Bay. 

As Whaley put it at a February meeting of San Francisco’s Asia Society, attendees won’t want to feel like they’ve “been in a hotel ballroom for a week. […] You’ve got to feel like you visited there. You’ve tasted the food; you’ve met the people.” 

What Is APEC, Anyway? 

APEC was founded in 1989 and became one of the first of a number of economically driven international conferences, like the G20, that came to dominate world affairs since the end of the Cold War. The summit brings together the 21 most important economies on both sides of the Pacific, ranging from Australia and China to Mexico and Vietnam.  

San Francisco is set to host the five final and most important meetings of the trade group during mid-November, including the CEO Summit Nov. 14-16, which is expected to attract 1,000 participants. The event has corporate sponsors ranging from Google and the United Parcel Service to Visa.

APEC was instrumental in the creation of free trade initiatives like the World Trade Organization Information Technology Agreement, which helped lower the cost of technology products like smartphones, accelerating their worldwide adoption. It was also instrumental in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement between 12 APEC members that was dashed against the rocks by then-President Donald Trump in 2017. 

What Should We Expect From This Year’s Summit? 

US President Joe Biden, right, and China's President Xi Jinping, left, wearing suits and ties, stand next to one another while in front two American flags and two Chinese flags while looking into the distance.
U.S. President Joe Biden, right, and China's President Xi Jinping, left, meet on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua, Bali, on Nov. 14, 2022. | Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images | Source: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

APEC’s return to San Francisco takes on new relevance against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, fraught U.S.-China relations and a new era of geopolitical competition. 

Last year, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine upstaged the APEC meeting in Bangkok. This year, it’s an opportunity for President Joe Biden to reassert leadership in the Indo-Pacific region; Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen are all set to attend.

The theme of APEC 2023 is “Creating a Resilient and Sustainable Future for All.” The CEO Summit will bring together political and business leaders from member nations for what the group describes as “two days of robust dialogue on global opportunities and challenges shaping economic, environmental, and societal trends in the region.” 

“As hosts of this year’s CEO Summit, the U.S. will shape the agenda and work toward solutions to create a more inclusive and resilient Asia-Pacific,” Monica Hardy Whaley, president of the National Center for APEC, told The Standard in an email. “The world faces many challenges, and the [American] business community is part of the solution.”