Three summits jointly boost centrality
Cambodia, Indonesia, and Thailand with distinctive styles of leadership and diplomatic finesse have succeeded in performing the most difficult somersault in international relations by uniting concerned parties from all sides over the Ukraine war to agree to disagree and then agree to agree. Bravo to the trio of Asean members for the outstanding success. A task that seemed impossible just a few weeks ago suddenly became a possibility. Indeed, if global leaders had some humility like the leaders in this part of the world, the outcome of these regional summits could serve as a stepping stone for peace and stability in the wider world. Southeast Asia could even shape the new international order in the making, as the hosts of three summits -- Asean, G20, and Apec -- have demonstrated.
In early May, these three summit chairs were quite worried because the war in Ukraine erupted without warning as the trio were looking to play host for their big diplomatic events and raise their international profile. They even issued a joint statement pledge for support from their powerful dialogue partners to allow them the opportunities to do their jobs without disrupting or boycotting the meetings due to divisions caused by the war.
The statement said that these meetings "share commonalities that provide a unique opportunity for all participating countries/economies to jointly advance the collective global and regional agenda and efforts to bring peace, prosperity, and sustainable and inclusive development to all our peoples".
Furthermore, the trio pledged to work with partners and stakeholders to ensure cooperation as member states continue to strengthen Asean centrality, credibility and relevance in maintaining peace and stability in their regional and global endeavours. And they have done exactly that. One can argue that it was pure luck that it turned out this way. Some pundits said it was by default or a fluke. Whatever the cause, the statements from the three summits demonstrated the ability of small states to skillfully encourage superpowers and others to adopt amiable attitudes and positions.
During the Asean-related summits, Cambodia invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to attend. He dispatched his Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba instead to convince Asean to change sides and back the West for Ukraine. In this, he failed but he did manage to speak out to the regional audience. Asean's positions on the biggest war in Europe since World War II are diverse and complex but they reflect the independent diplomatic mind of each member, which at this point in time has benefited the bloc as a whole.
In Bali, the debate on the war continued, and this time there were some new elements. Under the spell of Balinese dance and the aura of the world's third-largest democracy, some would surmise, the divided G20 leaders were able to agree on their Bali Declaration, including a 169-word paragraph condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine in the strongest terms -- something which no diplomats earlier felt would be possible. Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov attended the Bali summit, sitting in for President Vladimir Putin. He left the summit before the declaration was agreed upon but with his deputies present at the meeting.
Kudos must go to Indonesia, which was able to pool together all opposing forces to agree on the situation in Ukraine. The G20 communique was hailed as a milestone for President Joko Widodo's international profile as a peacemaker, not to mention that both Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden had chosen Bali as their meeting venue.
Rightly so, due to the successful release of the G20 leaders' communique, the outcome immediately ramped up the expectation of some of the G7 members at the Apec summit. As such, speculation was rife that a joint Apec ministerial statement might not be possible due to the opposing views of the West and other members from the region. What could be even more complicated than the G20 was quite simple -- not all Apec members are countries.
The host still remembers that back in August, during the various ministerial meetings in Chiang Mai, there were no joint statements coming from the meetings in Chiang Mai due to the West's hardline position against Russia's invasion of Ukraine. There were a series of workouts both at the G20 and Apec preparatory meetings. However, this time around, all summits were held without a walkout.
Truth be told, more than 100 hours were spent on negotiation on how to obtain a consensus from all Apec members over the statements on Ukraine contained in the G20 declaration. At first, Thailand insisted throughout that the impacts of Western sanctions have negative impacts on the global economy, which must be included alongside the condemnation of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent economic calamity that followed. Bangkok's bone of contention remains that dialogue and peace should be given a chance otherwise human suffering and casualties will continue.
In Bali, the G20 declaration that zeroed in on the condemnation of Russia came from the member countries. In Bangkok, while the Apec senior officials were hard-hitting, they were also more collaborative. Otherwise, the ministerial joint statement with the exact wording from G20 would not be possible. There were many fault lines which could further complicate the whole drafting process, such as references to a past UN resolution.
A few hours before the opening of the Apec ministerial meeting on Nov 17, senior officials were still unable to agree on an acceptable text that could incorporate the language of G20 and the host's position. Then, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Andrey Belousov quietly informed the Thai chair that Russia may work on some "cut and paste" G20 language related to the Ukrainian war. At that juncture, the host saw the light at the end of the tunnel and that a foreign ministerial statement would be possible. After additional negotiation, the G20's paragraph No.3 has been transferred to the Apec ministerial statement's paragraph No.7, with only the word "national" deleted and "G20" changed to Apec.
Luckily, earlier Apec senior officials were able to overcome their debate on the "Indigenous Peoples" -- whether the first letters of the words should be written in lowercase or capitalised. New Zealand, Canada, and Australia have recognised the rights of their Indigenous Peoples and unwaveringly want the statement to include such a distinctive designation with capital letters, popularly known as IP. Other members do not have a similar category for their minorities. After a lengthy debate, the acceptable wordings were "Indigenous Peoples". After the leaders' meeting ended on Saturday, the joint leaders' declaration was released with the same language on Ukraine used in the ministerial statement. Big applause for Thai diplomacy and Siam Thevathirat (Guardian Spirit of Siam).
Along with the Bangkok Goal for the Bio-Circular-Green economic model, Thailand succeeded in issuing all outcome documents including the ministerial and leaders' statements. Had the host failed to do so, it would have been a disaster, with consequential damage to the Apec process and its members. Now, with the new recalibrated Apec, the regional economies can look forward to the implementation of the BCG goals in the years to come to balance economic recovery.
When historians look back, November 2022 will be highlighted and remembered as the most significant month for Southeast Asia because when the fate of the world hung in the balance, the region came to the rescue.
A veteran journalist on regional affairs
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs