THE chairman’s statement at the end of the 30th Asean Summit last week was at its clearest on concern over rising tension in the Korean Peninsula. With respect to other parts of the long statement, the world was treated to the usual prevarication on the South China Sea issue and sanguine satisfaction with progress in the Asean community pillars as well as its other integration projects.
Asean leaders, without qualification, identified North Korea’s belligerence and roguish behaviour as having caused the threat to peace, even if they called for restraint to preserve it.
The fact that China has a 1961 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance with North Korea, which technically obliges Beijing to come to Pyongyang’s defence in the event of an attack on North Korean territory, did not deter Asean from insinuating Kim Jong-Un has been asking for it with his antics.
Of course, China is nowadays not as close to North Korea as “lip and teeth”, which was how Mao Zedong put it in 1961, but still...
Thus it was that the Chair of Asean for this year, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte had this telephone conversation with United States President Donald Trump when he expressed the regional grouping’s concern as well as hope for restraint in the Korean Peninsula, and got invited to meet his opposite number – some would say his political double – in Washington.
The fact that Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha also got invited in a separate call to come to Washington gives the impression that these invitations are for Asean countries with whom the US has formal defence arrangements. According to the Philippines media, Duterte will not be going. But if he does, it is to be hoped he will carry the Asean card with him as well.
And if Duterte brought his common law wife along, there is no doubt it would sit well with Trump. Both revel in the unconventional.
Certainly Duterte has had no cause to call Trump the “son of a whore” just as Trump does not find particular offence in Duterte’s anti-drug warfare in the Philippines.
If they came to discuss the South China Sea issue, however, it would be interesting to see who would outdo the other in double-talk.
For Asean there would be great interest in whether the South China Sea would be discussed and what kind of representation Duterte would make. He could only make a representation on behalf of the Philippines, if he could make clear what exactly is Manila’s position.
Duterte’s South China Sea opacity – or more accurately obfuscation – might actually endear him to Trump who is a master of the art. So it could be expected there would be some good coming out of a meeting between the two Presidents, particularly for Duterte and the Philippines.
While Trump has been sitting in Washington like some kind of emperor of a Middle Kingdom with all these foreign leaders coming to pay homage, the solution to the South China Sea disputes and China’s claims, however, lies in Beijing.
So in the chairman’s statement after the 30th Asean Summit in Manila, there was a safe distance between paragraph 7, where there was reference to full respect for legal and diplomatic processes in the settlement of disputes, and the section on the South China Sea (paragraphs 120 to 121) where there was absolutely no such reference, of course.
There was not a squeak on the ruling devastating to China by the Law of the Sea Arbitration Tribunal last July.
Instead, the leaders trotted out the usual asinine hope for a Code of Conduct by the middle of the year which has been long overdue since the Declaration of Conduct of 2002. And even tried to celebrate the imminence of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) which has been in existence in many places.
It is as if, right on cue, they have no idea how to move forward. Asean leaders must stop this charade. If they do not want to cross China – a perfectly understandable predisposition – they should at least come up with ideas on how to found a long-term cooperative solution. Why has Asean always got to wait on China?
There are many ideas out there on how to convert the South China Sea from an area of contention to a zone of cooperation. One involves turning the Spratlys into an International Marine Peace Park.
More than the undoubted oil reserves, the South China Sea is a huge source of fish for the entire region. About two billion people depend on it for their protein, and a not inconsiderable number for their livelihood. Over 12% of total world annual fish catch comes from the South China Sea (valued at US$21.8bil).
With all their talk about a people-centric Asean, should not the leaders get their officials and experts to look into making a proposal which would turn the South China Sea into a zone of cooperation to sustain the harvest of fish? Even Israel and Jordan could do so – under the 1994 peace agreement which created the Red Sea Marine Peace Park in the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea.
In a new e-book, Justice Antonio T. Carpio of the Philippines notes: “The eggs and larvae that spawn in the Spratlys are carried by currents to the coasts of China, Vietnam, Luzon, Palawan, Malaysia, Brunei, Natuna Islands as well as the Sulu Sea. The Spratlys are the breeding ground for fish in the South China Sea.”
Asean leaders should begin to give stronger leadership and get into some details. They cannot be making platitudinous statements again and again.
They cannot continue to spend time over prepared drafts which are becoming like an old record. They cannot be rushing from one meeting to another on a tight schedule prepared by the officials which gives them little time for true contemplation. They cannot be rushing home as soon as the ceremonies are over – and only start dealing with the regional issues at the next summit.
Asean leaders must give Asean quality time.
Apart from clear concern over the tension in the Korean Peninsula, there was again too much self-satisfaction in the chairman’s statement of the 30th Asean Summit. On strengthening the secretariat and Asean organs, for instance, the leaders were happy with the progress made by the High Level Task Force. But exactly what progress and in which direction? They did not say.
On the study to update the Asean Charter, they agreeably noted the direction from Ministers “for a precise and cautious approach taking into account the views and positions of all Member States.” Does this mean no change in the Asean Charter for the next five years? Ten years?
Even on the tension in the Korean Peninsula, they did not make any specific suggestion on what could be done. Another attempt to revive the six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear programme that first started in 2003?
Play tough and kick North Korea out of the 27-member Asean Regional Forum which North Korea had joined in 2000?
With so many matters covered in such general terms, the chairman’s statement at the end of Asean Summits is becoming more and more superficial. Asean leaders must give clear leads with some details on one or more of the issues to show they are on top of them and wish to see a meaningful end result.
- Tan Sri Munir Majid, chairman of Bank Muamalat and visiting senior fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also chairman of CIMB Asean Research Institute.