Something's afoot at the Asean meeting

Something's afoot at the Asean meeting

The United States' Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came to Bangkok with a message for his friends and allies in Asean: "Trust the US".

At the same time, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi was also in town, urging non-Asian nations to avoid sowing "distrust" and division in its neighbourhood.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was here as well, but he was too occupied with bilateral talks with Thailand to come up with any "good suggestions" for the grouping, so he left early.

During the Asean-related meetings, both Mr Pompeo and Mr Wang were polite and professional in their response to media inquiries. They avoided naming names when they made negative comments in front of the Asean banner.

However, the US mood quickly changed after President Donald Trump decided to increase tariffs on China's exports on Aug 2. At the Siam Society, Mr Pompeo was more direct about China's policy in the region, including the Mekong subregion. One journalist even quipped that Mr Pompeo "was like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde".

Luckily, North Korea's Foreign Minister Ro Yong-ho, was not in town. Otherwise, a new drama may have unfolded, as Mr Pompeo would undoubtedly have raised the denuclearisation issue with him.

However, the real diplomatic spectacle began when Asean met with its three dialogue partners in the Asean Plus Three group -- Japan, South Korea and China.

The bilateral spat between Japan-South Korea over their latest trade dispute spilled over onto the Asean stage for all to see. It was one of the most incredible moments in the annals of Asean meetings with its dialogue partners. The differences were no longer between protagonists from the West and East, or between developed and developing countries over territorial disputes. This time around, they were about Japan and South Korea -- two close neighbours and the group's key trade and investment partners. As both are key American allies in the Indo-Pacific region, Mr Pompeo tried to mediate in their dispute using the Asean platform, but failed.

Officials and journalists were flabbergasted when South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha openly criticised Japan in her opening remarks over Tokyo's decision to withdraw South Korea from the so-called "white-list" of countries with preferential trade status, so emotions were extremely unfriendly from the get-go. She condemned the action as "unilateral and arbitrary", saying that both countries must seek to enlarge their piece of the pie by sharing and expanding the free flow of trade and commerce, rather than taking steps to shrink it.

In response, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono retorted that he heard no complaints from Asean about Japan's export management measures on sensitive goods. After all, Mr Kono said, it is Japan's prerogative to do so.

Now, South Korea and Asean are considered as Japan's ordinary trading partners. The candid exchange between Ms Kang and Mr Kono, will be recorded as a pivotal moment in the Asean post-ministerial meetings.

Looking back, the 52nd Asean Ministerial Meeting was extraordinary because it came at a time when Thailand's domestic and international dynamics converged. Against all odds, Thailand pulled it off. As Asean meetings entered the crucial second day, a series of bombs near the venue exploded, but failed to scare off foreign dignitaries attending the meetings. Whoever was behind the plot was ultimately aiming at tarnishing the image of Thailand as the chair of Asean, especially Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha during this transitional period.

In this case, they failed, and no one raised the issue during the meetings. That said, it shows that rogue elements are still out there to cause disruptions for the government.

From now on, Asean summits and its related meetings will no longer be a series of dull meetings and prepared speeches because last week's events highlighted Asean's power to get its partners to the negotiating table. Since 1977, Asean has established ties with developed countries such as the Japan, the US, Australia and EU nations with the key objective of accessing their markets, courting investment and technical know-how. Over the years, its dialogue partners have encompassed all key global economies and leading international organisations, including the United Nations and the World Bank.

As a neutral organisation, world leaders can use the Asean platform to further their own causes. Often, leaders would have meetings on the sidelines if they could not arrange a meeting on their own. For instance, both the US and China used last week's gathering to update and improve their stalled relationship. The US, Japan and South Korea also held a tripartite meeting, which would not be possible in their own capitals. Japan and South Korea's foreign ministers also met, after failing to do so in their countries.

Most importantly, China and Vietnam managed to have a special meeting which focused on the latest situation in South China Sea, which indicated the depth of their friendship. Mr Wang and Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Banh Minh discussed bilateral trade and investment as well as the latest incident in the disputed waters. Their meeting paved the way for the release of a Joint Communique that contained stronger wordings relating to the recent "serious incident" in the South China Sea.

Obviously, without consensus, Asean's most important document of the year would not have been issued. A replay of 2012 was not an option. As the chair, Thailand also conducted over a dozen bilateral meetings with its dialogue partners and other members of various sub-regional cooperation groups.

In the upcoming 35th Asean Summit and East Asia Summit in November, the atmosphere will be more candid and more interactive dialogue among world leaders should be expected as the precedent have been set. Asean leaders cannot stand idly by as they have to do their homework and raise issues which impact the region. Asean will no longer be a bystander in the meetings as this year's meetings have demonstrated, as all Asean members and their dialogue partners are equally interconnected.

As everyone can see, Asean is still relevant to regional and global politics. It is still a great platform to foster trust among all of its members and partners. Just look at how the major powers used Asean meetings to share their aspirations and concerns. The five remaining months under Thailand's chairmanship will be crucial to show that Asean is a catalyst for peace and stability in the still-undefined global order.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is veteran journalist on regional affairs.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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