Analysis

Delusional

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The association of Southeast Asian Nations’ summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, ended in a shambles on Wednesday over how to check China’s aggressive pursuit of its territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Following a clash between President Aquino and Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, an ally of China, over Cambodian claims that Asean had reached a consensus on not “internationalizing” the maritime disputes, the Philippines claimed to have gained the support of five Asian countries in its initiative to hold talks with three other Asean members—Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam—on Dec. 12 to try moving discussions forward on their respective territorial disputes that had been blocked by China with the aid of Cambodia.

With its initiative, the Philippines appeared to have broken ranks with its Asean partners on the contentious territorial issue that had overshadowed Asean’s economic and trade cooperation with China.

China refused to discuss the territorial disputes at the Asean summit, insisting stubbornly on its position that the talks be confined within the framework of Beijing and the 10-member Asean, to the exclusion of the United States, a Philippine ally, which President Aquino wanted to play an active role in conflict resolution in the  region.

Mr. Aquino claimed at the end of the summit that the Philippines had gained the support of five Asian countries in seeking a peaceful resolution of the dispute outside the framework of the China-Asean nexus.

The Philippines had earlier pushed for serious talks on a code of conduct on conflict resolution with China, which expressed willingness to participate “at the proper time.” Newly appointed Cabinet Secretary Jose Almendras, who accompanied Mr. Aquino at the summit, claimed that the Philippine initiative had gained the support of five nations, not necessarily Asean members, but he did not identify them. He said getting the five nations to agree on the Philippine initiative was a “huge victory,” without explaining why. In the same breath, Almendras admitted that Asean had failed to get any firm commitment from China on the code of conduct. He also claimed that the exclusion of Hun Sen’s statement from the postsummit communiqué, to the effect that  the summit had reached a consensus on not “internationalizing” the territorial rows, was in itself a “success” for the Philippines.

Before we can claim any success in diplomatic encounters, it has to be demonstrated, for such claims can create delusions that the region is on the way to peace when in reality it is sitting on an explosive fuse.

The wire services presented a contradictory view to official propaganda. For instance, reporting from Phnom Penh, Reuters said commentators had declared China a “clear summit winner.”  It pointed out that Hun Sen helped China notch up a succession of diplomatic victories at the summit: “China stalled debates on a resolution of maritime disputes in the South China Sea,” and “rebutted attempts by Southeast Asian nations to start formal talks on the issue, and avoided any rebuke from [US President Barack] Obama over territorial disputes.”

According to the report, a closing statement by Hun Sen made no mention of the South China Sea, “another  victory for China’s attempts to prevent multilateral talks on the dispute.” Using its powers as conference chair, Cambodia restricted debate over the issue of China’s maritime claims, dividing the group and infuriating the US ally, the Philippines, the report said.

The report also said the summit meetings came close to a breakdown when Hun Sen adopted a draft statement saying there was a consensus not to “internationalize” the dispute between Asean and China. The Philippines, “which sees its alliance with the US as a critical check to China’s claims at a time when Washington is shifting its military focus back to Asia, made a formal protest to Cambodia and succeeded in having the clause removed from the final statement,” the report said.

But this opened a chance for China to poke fun at the Philippines’ assertion that there had been no  consensus. China pointed out that eight out of 10 Asean leaders had agreed not to internationalize the dispute, meaning, according to Qin Gang, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, there was a consensus.

“I suggest that people, when attending the East Asian summit, have to be very good at mathematics,” he said.   “That’s 10 minus 2, so which is bigger?”

At the summit, Obama avoided making clear commitments to give military support to allies threatened by aggressive Chinese intrusions into disputed territories.  The summit results proved that Asean remains a weak framework to counter China’s penetration in disputed territories.

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APOLOGIES

In my column “Growth didn’t trickle down” (5/7/12), I inadvertently failed to acknowledge the BusinessWorld articles “Asia has to ‘constitute its own growth pull’—Sachs” by Diane Claire J. Jiao and “Investments hurdle tagged” by Judy T. Gulane. The articles were incorporated into my column on the Asian Development Bank Manila conference on the economic performance of the Philippines during the past decade without attribution to sources in my desire to present a comprehensive commentary on the Philippine economic outlook. During the conference, I was swamped by a flurry of news stories that caused me to neglect acknowledging sources. This was my fault. For this oversight, I offer my sincere apologies to my colleagues in the media. I never had the slightest intention to deny the authors of the articles credit for their praiseworthy work. I’ve always found BusinessWorld a credible and trustworthy source of media information.

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