May 6, 2017 4:10 am JST

ASEAN summit underscores dearth of leadership

Not-so-golden anniversary sees members treat China with kid gloves

JUN ENDO, Nikkei staff writer

MANILA -- The Association of Southeast Asian Nations observed its 50th anniversary with a summit that failed to yield a united front against Beijing on the South China Sea territorial disputes, a comedown for an organization once steered by strong figures.

Dialing back the rhetoric

Following the formal summit in the morning on April 29, leaders from the 10-member regional bloc held a retreat at the Coconut Palace here. Indonesian President Joko Widodo urged counterpart Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, which chaired the summit, to include strongly worded language on the South China Sea issue in the chairman's statement.

But Duterte, who hopes to receive economic aid from Beijing, stood his ground until time ran out. The exchange ended with the understanding that the matter would be left to his discretion.

The resulting document was much softer on China than even the one from September 2016, when Beijing-friendly Laos chaired the leaders' summit.

The country that chairs ASEAN in a given year is supposed to work as a go-between to build a consensus among all members, in keeping with the tradition of unanimous decision-making. The 2017 statement reflects the agenda of those who, like Duterte, prioritize forging closer ties with the world's second-largest economy.

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong refrained from making any assertive comments about the South China Sea or the increasingly provocative North Korean regime. He instead focused on such noncontroversial themes as the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership between ASEAN and six other Asia-Pacific nations.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, once a vocal critic of Myanmar's human rights abuses against the Rohingya, is now all but silent on the Muslim ethnic minority. Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc were barely visible. Debates between the national leaders were evidently lacking in spirit.

Where have all the statesmen gone?

ASEAN once boasted such opinion leaders as the late Indonesian President Suharto, who led the organization during its infancy. Singaporean founding father Lee Kuan Yew suggested that what was then a five-member regional community cooperate militarily in the face of the Soviet threat.

In 1990, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad proposed an East Asia Economic Caucus, which would consist of ASEAN nations along with Japan, China and South Korea. The idea led to the ASEAN+3 forum.

The ASEAN Economic Community would not have been realized without Thai Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun pushing for an ASEAN Free Trade Area. And earlier this decade, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and peers drove discussion on the South China Sea disputes.

How do current ASEAN leaders compare? One common thread is that they apparently devote much of their energies to domestic affairs while relegating foreign policy to the back seat.

Widodo, head of the largest state in the bloc, is said to have little interest in foreign diplomacy. Vice President Jusuf Kalla showed up in his stead at last July's Asia-Europe Meeting and at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in November.

Let's call the whole thing off

Duterte joked with reporters April 29 about canceling the upcoming ASEAN summit scheduled for November, noting how nothing changes at the gatherings. His focus is clearly on such closer-to-home issues as China ties and drug crimes.

Meanwhile, Malaysia's Najib is dealing with the cloud hanging over a state investment fund embroiled in a corruption scandal. Thailand's Prayuth came to power in a military coup.

As Myanmar's de facto woman in charge, Aung San Suu Kyi participated as an equal in the ASEAN leaders' summit last month. But her official portfolio is state counselor and foreign affairs minister, meaning she lacks the proper job title to attend as a head of state.

ASEAN successfully overcame differences of opinion to unite a region of 600 million as a single entity that can take on such powers as Europe, the U.S. and China. But in the absence of forceful leaders, it now risks losing that prominent stature.

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