Tuesday, April 10, 2012

ASEAN Summit - A Dramatic Event

When the 20th Summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations concluded in Phnom Penh last week, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen gave a news conference that many described as, to put it mildly, a spectacle. He talked about the summit, but he also spent time defending himself against accusations that he has been, also to put it mildly, under too much Chinese influence.

He waxed wrathful against critics, including local political rivals, whom he denounced as, again to put it mildly, “stupid” and “crazy.” He also made sure the press knew one of his opponents was afflicted with alopecia.

Diplomats who did not know Hun Sen well and reporters covering Cambodia for the first time were primly scandalized. “But for Hun Sen, that’s par for the course,” says Ngurah Swajaya, Indonesia’s ambassador to Asean and the former ambassador to Cambodia. “That’s his normal style.”

It is also the normal public speaking style of many politicians I know. You just don’t usually catch them chairing Asean summits.

If the 20th Asean Summit ended in an unexpected manner, its substantive results were also unexpected, or rather, better than expected. The Phnom Penh Agenda for Asean Community Building, which emphasizes efforts to create an economic community by 2015, was crafted to make progress on the Master Plan on Asean Connectivity, close development gaps between countries in the region, improve the plight of migrant workers and strengthen disaster management. Also adopted were the Declaration for a Drug-Free Asean and the Concept Paper on Global Movement of Moderates, a pet project of Malaysia’s prime minister to curb extremism.

In the politico-security field, the Phnom Penh Agenda aims to build on the achievements of the Indonesian chairmanship, particularly the advancement of the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone and the pursuit of Bali Concord III, which enhances Aseans’s role in solving global challenges.

So far, by the book. Nobody expected Cambodia to produce an intellectual tour de force a la Indonesia.

It was on the question of the South China Sea that the summit began to get bouncy. Do forgive the mass media if their reporting gave the impression that the summit only served to open a fissure among members on that question. And credit the Philippines for much of the excitement, as it tabled two controversial proposals.

First, the Philippines proposed segregating the disputed parts of the South China Sea from the undisputed parts to pursue cooperation in the undisputed waters. To some Asean members, this idea was mind-blowing: How can there be any undisputed parts of the South China Sea when China claims all of it? What the Philippines probably meant was this: Where there are no Asean claimants, the area may be considered undisputed.

How might China respond? It could assert its claims by force, in which case it will have miscalculated. It could go to the International Court of Justice, in which case it will lose. Or it could negotiate, which is OK.

The idea was predictably shot down before it could fly. “It’s a non-starter,” the Malaysian foreign minister said bluntly. That’s because it was premised on robust Asean unanimity, a rare commodity at any time.

The Philippines also proposed creating an Asean agreement on a legally binding code of conduct for parties in the South China Sea issue before members move to negotiate with China. On this, Asean was evenly divided. Some members wanted to talk immediately with China while China was still in the mood to talk. Others feared China might pick off Asean members one by one if they began negotiations without a common position.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, ever creative in solving dilemmas, proposed that while members cobble together a common position, there should be constant communication to the Asean-China framework. Thus Asean would build a united front before talking to China, and China could be assured Asean would spring no surprises.

In the end, the summit merely resolved to “move for the final realization of the code of conduct.” Read: Asean senior officials will be scrambling in the months ahead to reach common ground on the code, while Cambodia as the Asean chair consults with China on the side.

But apart from that, the summit on the whole did not lack for results. Nor was it short of drama.

By Jamil Maidan Flores poet, fiction writer, playwright and essayist who has worked as a speechwriter for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 1992.

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