Why this particular ASEAN Summit matters

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By: John Carlo Tria

MANILA, Philippines – Doubtless, unlike the APEC Summit in Manila in 2015, the vehicular traffic generated by the ASEAN Summit 2017 is not as horrible, owing to the fact that classes were suspended beforehand and flights ferrying the VIPS from India, Canada, Australia, the United States, Russia, and the ten ASEAN heads of government all landed in Clark International Airport rather than the congested Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA).

Government, thus, made adjustments to ensure the least amount of discomfort for Metro Manila residents, who went out in droves to provincial resorts before the holidays (many in Boracay) to wait out the summit.

Despite the fact that this is the ASEAN Summit, it clearly has the look and feel of a larger, global event.

Beyond the drama and the photos, we need to see the larger and indeed, deeper implications of our country’s eventful chairmanship of the ten nation regional bloc. We caused a stir and recreated narratives. Many conclusions will be drawn and questions will be asked.

Before we enter the minutiae of the topic, it is fruitful to refresh ourselves of the 50 year history of this association. Born out of a western desire to contain communist expansion in Asia, ASEAN was deigned to be a bulwark against such movements.

As the cold war waned, it busied itself with improving the lives of its peoples while avoiding confrontational talk by deciding to adopt consensus as a means of arriving at decisions on common matters. Thus, this is a body not prone to loud debate, preferring things calmly discussed, with a way forward that allows unity and therefore, cohesion.

The result of this cooperation is clear in the fact that from 47%in 1990, poverty is down to 14% across the region. Some, however, are still poor, but no member has a majority poor population. Even the Philippine now has a level of 21%.

Today the bloc, home to some 600 million people, touted to be a world economic leader in a few decades, possibly overtaking a European union hobbled by internal strife and a dwindling population, less powerhouse economy Britain. Its proximity to China makes it an attractive place to base business, both as market and partner as it spreads its wings to become the single biggest economy.

With a firebrand Filipino leader helming the body, his bold proclamations got everyone’s attention, and got them talking, especially the contending parties in the South China Sea dispute. The tough talk gave an appropriate table upon which to talk. The Philippines is Duterte’s territory, and nobody spoke out of turn, creating the chance for dialogue. Had it been any other situation with other people, the wangling, and possibly, physical confrontation could have taken place with disastrous consequences on global trade.

The primary achievement of this summit, therefore, is the commitment of China to respect peace and navigational freedoms in the South China Sea, and the erstwhile adversary United States to take a step back from the conflict zone and offer to mediate the tensions rather than push a confrontationalist agenda. Other landmark agreements on migrant rights and discussions on violent extremism will create fruits. This is win-win as we know it.

The challenge is how these new arrangements can heal old animosities, ensure freer trade, and bring greater prosperity to all.

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