OPINION: China's pleasant ASEAN picture

Manolo Quezon - The Explainer

Posted at Aug 08 2017 03:14 AM

It ain’t necessarily so, that in diplomacy, actions speak louder than words. As we will see, a huge amount of time and trouble goes into the carefully crafted statements that result from meetings of diplomats. These are read very carefully because words do matter. In the case of ASEAN and China, for example, actions can punctuate the most carefully crafted statements, turning something vanilla into a rocky road-type mixed flavor, or changing what was supposed to be an exclamation point into a question mark. 

Yesterday afternoon, the news was that the ASEAN Foreign Ministers meeting had concluded without a communiqué or official bulletin being issued to tie everything together. The widely-reported reason was irreconcilable differences between some ASEAN member countries with regards to the group’s stand on China’s island-building in the seas in our neighborhood. Too young to have the stamina of a Carlos P. Romulo or an Albert del Rosario, our Foreign Secretary was absent that day, because his throat was sore. 

It would have been nice to have our Foreign Secretary in the thick of the action, trying to help achieve consensus. But all’s well that ends well, because later that night, a statement was finally issued. The communiqué proved stronger than expected. 

Reuters reported –and here is a sign of how complicated diplomacy gets—that the statement was stronger than the original proposed draft, which was –Reuters said—a watered-down version of the one issued in Laos last year. The Manila statement issued yesterday, then, said self-restraint and non-militarization was called for and that some member countries were concerned about land reclamation and other activities that served to erode trust and confidence and increased tensions in our region. Reuters added that a vague statement was made about the arbitration ruling, without naming China. 

Now here’s where actions speak as loud, if not louder, than words. In the world of diplomacy there’s no such thing as a coincidence. Late last month, the first anniversary of the historic arbitration ruling on our country’s case concerning the West Philippine Sea came and went. There was a lot of commentary on this but unnoticed by many, was something else. The Foreign Minister of China came to Manila, to talk about the thing that China had formerly insisted must not be named: the arbitration case and its impact on Philippine-China and ASEAN-China relations. 

To visit Manila, to talk about the case that, up to this point, must-not-be-named, and a mere few weeks before he was due to visit Manila again for the ASEAN foreign minister’s gabfest, was a clear and pointed message from Beijing. Manila, the photos of the Filipino and Chinese foreign ministers competing to see who could have a bigger smile in press photos, was now firmly in Beijing’s corner. A further message: Good Morning, Vietnam! You’re going to have to go it alone on this one. 

Which is what happened, with our Foreign Secretary resting at home, Vietnam couldn’t even look to its Filipino counterpart to ask, what happened? Let me point out one other thing, here: last Saturday, ASEAN had announced, to China’s delight, that a framework for a possible Code of Conduct for countries to follow in the South China Sea had been approved –which, as some critics pointed out, was a pledge to keep the clock running by doing more talking, considering everyone had agreed to have a Code of Conduct fifteen years ago and everyone’s been on-again, off-again, trying to talk since.  

Back to yesterday’s proceedings. If no statement had emerged yesterday it would have been a very neat reversal of what happened in 2012, when the spoilsport at the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh was the Philippines. Cambodia, long considered one of the, if not the, most reliable allies of China had its way, a vanilla statement ignoring the standoff between China and the Philippines would have been the result. After all, the default style of ASEAN is to limit itself to consensus and when no consensus exists, ASEAN simply keeps quiet. Prime Minister Hun Sen didn’t take into account President Aquino raising a fuss, which he did, and the result was no statement. Over the next four years, as more countries became concerned over China’s behavior, more ASEAN countries proved willing to quietly allow a more outspoken attitude towards China, while the Philippines and Vietnam found themselves allies on the question of China’s behavior in our region. 

In 2016, ASEAN foreign ministers in Laos were able to issue a statement on the South China Sea, after years of dogged opposition from Cambodia. That a statement was issued at all thus became the main event, and not really what the statement itself said: this phrase --“full respect for legal and diplomatic processes”—had apparently led to the failure to produce a statement in two previous meetings; removing it made the 2016 statement possible. Everyone could leave happy –Cambodia delivered while Vietnam could fight another day.  

And fight alone as it turned out. Earlier this year, in April, the new Philippine policy became evident when the Chairman’s statement issued in Manila deleted words Filipino diplomats had previously fought long and hard to include in ASEAN statements. But it was not, as Prashanth Parameswaran, writing in the Diplomat was careful to point out, a total surrender. The statement did retain mention of the importance of the rule of law and freedom of navigation and made one of those diplomatic “veiled” references to arbitration. What President Duterte’s statement as Chairman did do, was avoid making any references to the acts of China that had caused unease in the first place –something even Laos, the previous year, had allowed. Again, to punctuate the words came actions: our President then followed his ASEAN Chairmanship debut with a visit to Chinese warships when they docked in Davao. In his second State of the Nation Address, pictures again spoke as loudly as words, as the President’s statements on our independent foreign policy were accompanied by Brilliante Mendoza’s pictorial exclamation points: two photos of our President with China’s President. 

Henry Kissinger in his book on China, preferred to refer to the country as the Central, and not Middle, Kingdom as most other books have it. This is a significant choice. As diplomats know, words can have multiple meanings and which meaning you allow, which ones you suppress, which ones you use in contrast to what others use and understand, represents both a challenge and opportunity. For us, who are now living in times of which Napoleon warned –China is a sleeping giant, he said, and when she wakes up, she will move the world—we can learn one fundamental thing from them. Words and actions matter in equal measure, but what matters most is to have a gameplan that spans generations, and not merely administrations.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.