Forum boycotts aren't the answer

Forum boycotts aren't the answer

Today and tomorrow will see US President Joe Biden host meetings with the leaders of Asean. Eight out of 10 leaders of the bloc's member countries will be there, including Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha of Thailand and President Joko Widodo of Indonesia.

The two nations will be playing important roles as chairs of the annual G20 and Apec meetings later this year. Indonesia will first host the G20 meeting at the end of October, followed by Thailand hosting the Apec summit in mid-November.

Gen Prayut and Mr Widodo must use the opportunity of this trip to make their case strongly. The US must not lead a boycott of the G20 or Apec.

The agendas for both meetings were originally quite similar -- both host nations wanted direct discussions aimed at finding a pathway toward post-Covid economic recovery.

However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has put a very large spanner in the works. Not only is Covid not yet a thing of the past, but the Ukraine conflict has thrown the meetings into disarray. The elephant in the room is: Will the Western leaders attend the meetings alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin?

The answer must be "yes", though the most recent signals disappointingly point to a "no".

Most notably, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has stated that the US would not attend if Mr Putin were present. Indeed, in a recent meeting of G20 finance ministers in Washington, Ms Yellen and other finance ministers from Western countries staged a walk-out when it was the turn of the Russian finance minister to speak. The politics may be understandable but these gestures cannot be helpful to the improvement of the world's economy (the main task of any finance minister) or, indeed, to the restoration of world peace.

We are seeing an increasing breakdown in frictionless international trade, as well as a genuine slide into global stagnation. These are issues that finance ministers are expected to address.

Indeed, given the potential risk of serious escalation, I think it is the responsibility of all nations to engage and leave the door open for a diplomatic solution, however remote.

The two Asean hosts will have to work hard to keep the meetings alive. All options need to be explored. Can the meetings go ahead by avoiding joint public appearances between Western leaders and Mr Putin? Or can the Russians be content to send senior representatives in place of their president? The rest of the world wants to see dialogue, not posturing that adds to the already high level of tension.

The West must also realise that their narrative is not necessarily considered to be received wisdom in Asia. Their boycott and disengagement would leave a void that would be filled by alternative views that could further reduce the West's influence in this region. Asians are likely to see the absence of the West as a lack of respect to the region.

Indeed, G20 and Apec meetings should not just be forums for like-minded leaders to get together.

Indeed, even for Ukraine, fighting an existential war rightly never precluded its attempts to negotiate. Russia and Ukraine were in talks from the outset and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky has made it clear that he wants to talk with Mr Putin.

If Mr Zelensky is prepared to sit down with Mr Putin, what justifies the leaders of the Western states in avoiding doing so? We should not expect or desire handshakes or smiles, but an unwillingness to talk will not be helpful. Frankly, this unwillingness appears ridiculous when one considers that Europe is still happily paying for Russian gas.

Aggression must be met strongly. However, an unwillingness to engage will not lead to a greater chance of a peace, even if such meetings do not necessarily lead to a quick end of the war.

What we all should want to see is a negotiated settlement. Hopefully that would be one that reflects the sovereign rights of the people of Ukraine, and one that does not reward Russia in any way for its transgression of international law.

However, here we need to be realistic. Even the West has clear limits on its level of sacrifice in its desire to thwart Russia. This begs the following question: What is the realistic best-case outcome of this conflict?

One must hope it is an outcome that would not only ensure the sanctity of the borders of Ukraine, but also guarantee long-term security for its people. The rest of us have a duty to "give peace a chance" by engaging in dialogue, even if it ends up, for now, with an agreement to continue to disagree.

To this end, the leaders of Indonesia and Thailand have an historic responsibility to make the upcoming leaders' meetings count. Given the tenuous state of the world today, absences would be a waste of an opportunity for leaders to confront, challenge and debate issues that threaten the peace and prosperity of the whole world.

We abhor Russia's preemptive aggression and our hearts reach out to the suffering of the Ukrainian people. It is in this context that we hope the leaders of the world will approach every opportunity to find a peaceful solution.

Korn Chatikavanij, former finance minister, is leader of the Kla Party.

Korn Chatikavanij


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