After Beijing staged the G-20 Summit political show (which is becoming increasingly popular after superseding the long defunct political number a.k.a the G-7 Summit), the wandering troupe of political actors of various levels of importance and talents moved on to Vientiane, the capital of Laos.
What caught the attention of these masters of the global political game and drew them to this more humble place? The fact is that on September 6 through 9 this year, it was here where a few equally interesting and dramatic performances were scheduled (with elements of a particular sense of humor), which invariably included the ASEAN acronym.
The aforementioned acronym denotes the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes ten nations in the region and is increasingly becoming the center of attention in real world events. It is in this reality that the participants of these world games try to respond to the event mentioned above, as well as other political platforms.
Firstly, Vientiane hosted the regular summit of the member-countries of ASEAN itself. Secondly, several summits were held in the format of ASEAN + 1, where the world’s leading players, including China, Japan, India, participated as “plus ones”. It is worth recalling that the last ASEAN + US summit (with its grand entourage) took place in February this year at the Californian ranch, Sunnylands.
Following this, there was the ASEAN + 3 summit, which included China and Japan, as well as South Korea. Finally, the holding of the 11th summit of the ASEAN + 8 forum was the apotheosis of the series of events held in Vientiane. The United States, China, Russia, Japan, India, Australia, South Korea and New Zealand all participated. This forum is also referred to as the East Asia Summit (EAS).
All the events of recent years at various international platforms (including the most important one in New York) can be reduced to the following maxim: it isn’t the official well-attended events on stage that are important but the negotiations amongst the actors that take place on the sidelines on the eve of the big performance and during its breaks.
As a rule, an outside observer can only guess the content of such negotiations. But they are the ones that are motivated by the realities of life and define the really important parts of the final documents that are formulated at the end of official events.
The essence of the real events in Southeast Asia and in the South China Sea in the region can be reduced to the fact that it is here that the global political game waged by the world powers is being stoked.
The dangerous situation prevailing in Southeast Asia was coupled by the imposition of the ruling by the Hague Arbitration on July 12 that disavows China’s long-standing claim to much of the SCS area. This dramatically strengthens the position of its main geopolitical opponents in the region, i.e. the United States, Japan and India.
In Vientiane, serious backstage fights broke out amongst the major powers for influence over issues related to the regional games, which in this case turned out to be the ten ASEAN members; together and each individually.
The seriousness of the issue boiled down to the wording in the final documents on pressing political issues in Southeast Asia. Each of the leading players tried to persuade the ASEAN members to make records that would satisfy its estimates on both the situation in Southeast Asia, and the decision of the Hague arbitration.
The main goal of China’s major opponents was that the adopted declarations directly charged China with the deterioration of the situation in Southeast Asia (due to its “unfounded” claims of 80-90% of the SCS water area, as well as the construction work being carried out on the surrounding islands) and, secondly, support for the decision by the Hague arbitration must at the very least be expressed in a statement stipulating the mandatory implementation of its provisions.
As is clearly apparent, China’s ultimate goal was exactly the opposite. It has long been formulated, and boils down to the exclusion of “non- regional forces” from discussions on the problems in Southeast Asia as well as to resolving them bilaterally (that is, individually with each of its southern neighbors).
The contrast between the original goals of China and the US and their allies pertaining to their participation in the Vientiane events certainly determined the flexible nature of the formulation of the final documents on key political issues in the region.
Since no mention is made of the decision by the Hague arbitration, nor the culprit responsible for the worsening situation in Southeast Asia, China has every reason to declare that ASEAN’s position was “wise”.
How could it not be “wise” if the ASEAN members’ direct neighbor is the second greatest world power that it is very beneficial to maintain trade and economic relations with? In this sense, the “very gifted” can be only found somewhere in Eastern Europe.
Following the laws of theatrical drama, the participants in Vientiane as well as their audience should be allowed a brief reprieve which came in the form of the new president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, and his outrageous statements.
Of these statements, he addressed one particularly challenging matter to the leader of the most important global player. Incidentally, the Philippines have been in a military-politic
Taking into consideration the catastrophic drug trafficking situation in the country, the severity of the measures that R. Duterte has taken against drug traffickers is understandable.
However, his political inexperience apparently did not allow him to foresee the (inevitable) sharp reaction on the part of the vanguard of contemporary international hypocrisy represented by professional “human rights advocates” and the (self-appointed) chief custodian of “good international manners.”
The fact that R. Duterte did not foresee such a reaction can be the only explanation for the inadmissible statements made against US President Barack Obama, which put the Chinese leadership in a difficult situation, who, in general, regarded R. Duterte’s intention to develop better relations with Beijing in a favourable light.
Prime Minister Li Keqiang, who represented China in Vientiane, still met with the President of the Philippines on the sideline of the East Asia Summit (), but only after the “unfortunate incident” in the US-Philippine relations had been settled during the meeting between R. Duterte and Barack Obama that had taken place the previous day.
Apparently, the waning of the Philippine-US “incident” was due to information leaked to the press about a group of Chinese ships accompanying a barge carrying sand that appeared near the Scarborough Reef in SCS in early September.
It is worth recalling that China’s “development” of this very reef, which is located in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone was the direct cause of the former President, Boris Aquino, appearing in the Hague arbitration court in 2013 with a complaint.
The general rule for beginner politicians is that it is better to have some fun by sparring with a “punching bag” (for example, the UN Secretary General, which will obviously never “hit you back”.
As for the main actor in the international political theater, it pays to think hard in advance and carefully weigh up all the “pros” and “cons.”
What happens when a player (third or fourth in the ranking of significance) tries to sell perishable commodities, i.e. ‘disliking’ one of the world’s leading players is a case that has clearly been demonstrated in Eastern Europe over the last 25 years.
Most probably, R. Duterte has realized how difficult international political life is, and how it is never black-and-white. It might also have finally dawned on him that maintaining a close alliance with the United States can come in handy. So far, Barack Obama’s general reaction to the new Philippines president as “a bright guy” seems to be quite adequate.
But the “bright guy” is fast growing up as an international political figure. This is clearly demonstrated by the meeting he had in Vientiane with Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, during which both parties concluded a deal for the supply of two patrol vessels to the Philippines totaling about $160 million.
In general, whilst evaluating the events that took place in early September in Vientiane, it must again be noted that politics (just like any kind of art) is indirectly related to real life, which is based on its somewhat mysterious laws.
Vladimir Terekhov, an expert on issues relating to the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”