A frustrating Asean summit
text size

A frustrating Asean summit

To say that last week's summit of the Association of Southeast Nations was disappointing is an understatement. Not too much was expected when the 10 presidents and prime ministers met in Phnom Penh. But even less was actually achieved.

At least, in the traditional photo of the woman and nine men linking arms on the farewell stage, all of them were smiling. If they were still getting along famously, the two days weren't an entire write off.

The dismal under-achievement of the 2012 summit once again raises the question of whether such meetings are worth it.

They cost the taxpayers of the countries millions which could be better spent. Seldom do they have serious agendas that couldn't just as easily be covered in other ways. These days, telephone, teleconference and internet hookups are simple.

Most items on the sparse Cambodian agenda for Summit 2012 were discussed briefly and kicked further down the road. What was arguably the most important decision was a simple, three-way accord about the Thai-Cambodian border.

Prime ministers Yingluck Shinawatra and Hun Sen quickly and easily agreed to leave Thai and Cambodian border forces exactly where they are at the Preah Vihear temple region. Jakarta quickly acquiesced, no doubt relieved that the old plan to station Indonesian troops at the disputed frontier was growing even more unlikely.

There was failure by the national leaders, as usual, to agree on actual, ongoing problems. The centrepiece of hype and justification for Summit 2012 was a supposedly serious plan to face the gnawing territorial disagreements in the South China Sea.

China, Taiwan and four Asean members have serious, war-threatening claims, particularly on and around the Spratly Islands.

In the end, all the Asean leaders could do was to imitate Thai security forces and promise to "step up efforts" to resolve the Spratly Islands disputes.

They also appealed to a perceived softer, gentler side of Kim Jong-Un and his North Korean leadership. They urged Mr Kim to show "self restraint" on the much-criticised planned launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile or space rocket during the Songkran holiday period.

Prime Minister Yingluck certainly has plenty of work to do right here in Thailand. It is difficult to imagine that the other nine leaders are not just as preoccupied with vital, national issues.

Comparing the actual results achieved in Phnom Penh against the cost of the meetings in time and money, it seems the Asean heads of government might have done better to remain at home. Presidents and prime ministers have many duties and obligations in today's small and inter-connected world. But their first obligation, legally and morally, is to attend to their own countries. Annual summits, a rather new development in foreign affairs, are worthwhile only if they achieve.

Leaders of Asean countries make numerous foreign trips each year. Most of the trips are to neighbouring countries. The Cambodian meeting should once again raise the thoughtful question of just how useful these regular summits are for building relations and solving pressing problems. Surely it would be more useful to summon national leaders only when they are really needed. That way, all summits would be able to show achievements.

Do you like the content of this article?