Anybody wondering what useful came out of the 2017 Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders’ summit in Manila over the weekend may read this brief communique. The answer is clear: very little besides what appears to have been quite a party.
We, the Heads of State/Government of ASEAN Member States, gathered for the 30th ASEAN Summit in Manila on 29 April 2017 under the Chairmanship of the Republic of the Philippines with the theme “Partnering for Change, Engaging the World,” which envisions an integrated, peaceful, stable and resilient ASEAN Community that actively takes a leading role as a regional and global player in advancing political-security cooperation, sustainable economic growth and socio-cultural development in Southeast Asia and in the world.
We engaged in productive and fruitful deliberations reflective of our commitment to renew the aspirations and the enduring values of the ASEAN Founding Fathers, in adherence to the purposes and principles enshrined in the Bangkok Declaration which launched ASEAN in 1967 and the ASEAN Charter and to realize the six thematic priorities selected by the Philippines as ASEAN’s main deliverables for 2017, the 50th Anniversary of the establishment of ASEAN, namely: (a) A people-oriented and people-centered ASEAN; (b) Peace and stability in the region; (c) Maritime security and cooperation; (d) Inclusive, innovation-led growth; (e) ASEAN’s resiliency; and (f) ASEAN: a model of regionalism, a global player.
Or they could read the 124 paragraphs of additional waffle about lofty goals and such as ending smuggling, piracy and other evils and fears about situation, such as North Korea about which ASEAN has no role to play. Or they could cheer the acknowledgement of the “Role of the Civil Service as Catalyst for Change,” a document oozing with the self-congratulatory spirit of so much of the group’s pronouncements.
A more entertaining and doubtless more accurate flavor of the meeting was the priority given in the Philippines media to congenial aspects of the events. President Duterte managed to be on his best behavior, dressing in a manner his fellow leaders would regard as appropriate and not delivering swear words or gratuitous insults. Even his kowtow to China was delivered in phrases which did not especially offend the Vietnamese and others wanting a stand against China’s annexation of the South China Sea rather than pitiful retreat in the face of promises of Chinese riches.
The main theme as far as the local media was concerned was that it showed the Philippines was the best big party organizer in the 10-nation group. The highlight was the “ASEAN Fiesta” attended by 800 guests and featuring ethnic dances, folk and chart-topping music, and with the ASEAN leaders all attired in newly-designed barongs based on Mindanao tribal patterns and receiving Philippine mahogany trays designed with folk dancers or colorful birds.
But the brutal facts underlying ASEAN in the year it turns 50 are that such political cohesion as it had at times continues to fray. Inertia and indecision on the part of Indonesia, the region’s biggest nation, must carry much of the blame despite President Joko Widodo’s international standing and interest in the maritime and archipelagic issues. Indonesian wavering makes it easier for China to keep ASEAN divided on the sea issue, again retreating into pious statements about a Code of Conduct.
Blame for ASEAN’s lack of standing too resides with the dubious reputations of some current regional leaders, notably Duterte himself, Malaysia’s Najib Razak and Thailand’s Prayuth Chan-ocha. Contrast this with the days of Lee Kuan Yew, Suharto and Mahathir Mohamad.
Regional cooperation on the economic and social fronts has not been set back by political divisions so far. However, it is hard to see any new initiatives or much progress in making a reality of existing free trade agreements despite minor improvements in some areas of cooperation. A more forthright approach to real fears about protectionist threats by the new US President Donald Trump, who stunned the association by inviting Duterte to the White House at some future time, would also have been appropriate at a time when Trump is apparently entering the dangerous territory of mixing trade with security issues.
Trump has wrecked Asian unity by cancelling US participation in the TransPacific Partnership, the 12-nation trade pact negotiated by his predecessor, whose main if unspoken aim was to keep China out of it.