Another lost opportunity | Inquirer Opinion

Another lost opportunity

/ 05:16 AM November 18, 2017

A joint statement from the heads of state of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was finally issued on Thursday, or two days after the conclusion of their latest summit in Manila. It was, to say the least, an anticlimactic declaration, and was largely met with a collective yawn. For much of the rest of the world that had tuned in to the international gathering in Manila, it effectively ended with the final handshakes on Wednesday, and the departures of the participating world leaders for their home countries. The supposed meat of the conference, and the many side events it occasioned given the colorful cast of characters in attendance, had been covered for days in the world media. The joint statement on Thursday seemed like an afterthought.

That could only be because, as had become apparent early on in the summit, the talks among the Asean leaders and with those of other countries like China and the United States were expected to yield nothing substantial or consequential for the region—as usual. Every Asean meet before this—except for one or two in recent memory in which the joint communiqué caused a minor flap over some inconvenient wording disliked by one of the countries in the famously consensus-ruled bloc—had ended the same way: with a safe, circumspect set of words cobbled together to invoke time-honored diplomatic platitudes while skirting the real issues on the ground affecting the vast region and its peoples.


The latest statement hews to this template with its typically telling refusal to mention in any specific, pointed way the two biggest crises happening right now in this part of Asia: China’s accelerating militarization of the South China Sea, with its continuing fortification of seized islands and reefs in the waterway whose ownership is claimed by a number of other Asean countries, and the humanitarian catastrophe in Myanmar, in which tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have, according to reliable reports, been subjected to a horrific campaign of rape, violence and dispossession by the Myanmar military.

The unfolding tragedy in Myanmar merited not one word of rebuke or concern in the statement issued in President Duterte’s name as outgoing Asean chair; the most it could summon was a reiteration of previous calls for all parties to seek peaceful means and adhere to the rule of law in resolving the disputes in the South China Sea. That invocation takes on all shades of irony considering not only Mr. Duterte’s own checkered record when it comes to questions of fidelity to human rights principles (he called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s mention of the issue during their talk as an “official and personal insult”), but also, and more glaringly, the fact that Beijing, whom Mr. Duterte has labored mightily to please, happens to be the biggest disbeliever in the rule of law with its refusal to recognize the Philippines’ arbitration victory in The Hague—a decision the rest of the world community has hailed as a triumph of international law.


The Asean statement does make positive noises about the convening of an Asean-China joint working group in Vietnam early next year that would work on fleshing out a framework for the Code of Conduct of parties in the South China Sea. That framework was agreed to only after 15 years of back-and-forth in the bloc, while the Code itself is nonbinding—a flaw that China has only taken advantage of with its island-grabbing. International observers say it’s only a matter of time before

China exercises effective control over the vital waterway—parts of which, it needs to be reiterated, are well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone under international law.

But none of these and other urgent issues are in the Asean statement. After the glitz and hoopla, it’s timorous silence as usual—and another lost opportunity.

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TAGS: Asean, Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Editorial, Inquirer Opinion
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