[PHOTO -Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, (left), talks to Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, (right), during a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Phnom Penh on July 19, 2012. Natalegawa top diplomat is making a Southeast Asian tour in an effort to mend an internal rift within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) group over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. -- PHOTO: AFP]

MANILA, JULY 21, 2012 (INQUIRER) Passion For Reason By: Raul C. Pangalangan - Foreign Undersecretary Erlinda Basilio did well to explain—in print—“[w]hy there’s no Asean joint communiqué” that came out of last week’s big regional meeting at Phnom Penh. Until I read her essay yesterday, all I had read about was China’s going to town with its “success” at the Asean, portraying the Philippines as an isolated state pathetically abandoned by its fellow Asean countries, all of them bowing before China’s might and meekly going along with the regional bully.

Basilio explodes that myth in categorical yet sober language (and even that level of restrained candor, I am unused to getting from our diplomats). No, the Philippines wasn’t abandoned by its Asean neighbors who, in fact, already supported an earlier statement circulated by Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario on the standoff at Scarborough Shoal. One foreign minister wrote the Asean chair on the “necessity for Asean to issue a timely statement by the foreign ministers… as our common effort to contribute to the maintenance of an environment conducive in the region which is of interest [to] all of us.”

The Singaporean foreign minister, K. Shanmugan, wondered aloud on his website how the Asean “was unable to deal with something that is happening in [its] neighborhood and not say something about it.” In other words, it was as if the Asean pretended there was no elephant in the room. He added: “There’s no point in papering over it. There was a consensus among the majority of countries. The role of the chair in the context is to forge a complete consensus amongst all. But that did not happen.”

But therein lay the problem. The chair happened to be occupied by Cambodia, obviously beholden to China, and it was determined to exclude any mention of Scarborough altogether. Indeed, from Basilio’s account, it was Cambodia which invoked the chair’s prerogative to quash any reference to Scarborough in the communiqué, in effect, a de facto veto on the majority’s support for the Philippine position.

Whatever happened to China’s much-touted “peaceful rise”? Since when did it become vicious, and why? China’s leaders devised the term “peaceful rise,” later on replaced by the less suggestive “peaceful development,” to reassure its Asian neighbors and the United States that its breakneck economic prosperity and corresponding military modernization should pose no threat to them, and that it was after all in China’s interest to have peace and stability. For a while, it led to the muting of territorial feistiness over barren islands and rocks in the South China Sea.

Basilio also exposes the canard that Secretary Del Rosario walked out of the meeting. Far from it. (In another report, I read that it was Cambodia’s foreign minister who walked out after the Philippines had already accepted a draft compromise.) Indeed, the scenario was quite the opposite. Del Rosario stayed on to say his piece. His microphone went dead, but he continued speaking to complete the Philippine statement.

Basilio diplomatically fudges whether Cambodian microphones usually conk out when foreign ministers speak but, since I am not a diplomat, I am completely free to speculate that Secretary Del Rosario’s microphone being cut off was not innocent at all.

Finally, Basilio shows that the disagreement at Phnom Penh was narrow and specific, but the consensus that the Philippines won was actually broad and substantial. The disagreement—the one that stalled and finally killed the Asean’s joint communiqué—was on whether there will be an express reference to Scarborough. The consensus—on which basis the Asean can move forward despite the Cambodia-engineered debacle at Phnom Penh—is on the key elements of a proposed Code of Conduct. I have read other reports saying that consensus affirms international law as the framework for resolving the territorial disputes. That in itself is a major step forward.

But the real triumph there is that the Code of Conduct recognizes the multilateral nature of the South China Sea problem. Again, given the game of shadows that is Asean diplomacy, it might have otherwise been wiser to hush up on this triumph. When it comes to victory, what’s important is to win it, not to revel in it. A little humility should be good. But the situation is different now.

The first Asean declaration calling for a code of conduct on the territorial disputes in the South China Sea was adopted in 1992, and it took 10 years before that declaration was joined by China in 2002. The 2002 declaration was a major step forward, and must have coincided with the time when China indeed took its “peaceful rise” to heart. Today, another 10 years have passed and obviously things have changed for China.

China has portrayed the Asean’s failure to adopt a joint statement at Phnom Penh as China’s triumph, but it merely succeeded in portraying it as the Asean’s defeat. In other words, by gloating about how it prevailed in Phnom Penh, this sordid episode should remind other Asean countries why it is so important for them to band together against their biggest, most powerful neighbor. Already, just days after Phnom Penh, China has upped the ante and announced newer initiatives in islands belonging to the Kalayaan Islands Group that are covered as part of Philippine territory under our latest Baselines Law.

In other words, China is using the Cambodian veto over the Asean joint communiqué to build momentum not just over the five scattered rocks at Scarborough but over the Spratly islands archipelago themselves. We should capitalize on China’s aggressive streak to galvanize further international support for our position. Let the Phnom Penh meeting be one step backward, and foster global outrage to push us two steps forward.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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