Duterte’s mouth derails summit

China’s armed forces are unlikely to be sweating over the threat of coordinated Asean action. Source: Wikimedia

As the region’s leaders come together in Laos for their first summit since the Asean Economic Community (AEC) was established in January, it is a perfect opportunity for the bloc to showcase its growing integration while finding a common voice on the South China Sea dispute with Beijing.

Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi is representing her president because she is constitutionally banned from the top job so has fashioned her “state counsellor” role into that of a prime minister. But her arrival has been overshadowed by Philippines’ president, Rodrigo Duterte.

The “straight-talking” head of state has managed to get the event off on the wrong foot by calling his US counterpart Barack Obama a “son of a whore”, who promptly cancelled their meeting.

It’s not like the US president is an important figure or anything. Duterte was asked how he would respond to a hypothetical question about his mass slaughter of suspected drug dealers and users by the security services and vigilante gangs and the newly elected president exploded into a tirade about colonial subjugation.

Now the conference appears in tatters thanks to the thin-skinned Duterte. But beyond his remarks, Asean appears to be making little progress.

The bloc remains a loose amalgam of contrasting states which share borders but little else. It is incapable of any political, let alone military, cooperation.

It clearly cannot take a stand over the South China Sea or stand up to the mighty Chinese but the dispute is forcing members to channel investment into the military that should be spent on infrastructure.

Anyone who has sat for hours waiting to cross between Asean’s borders or bounced down its potted roads will know that trade within the region will struggle without better connectivity. But distractions like the South China Sea, domestic scandals and Duterte’s outbursts stop Asean addressing key issues of integration and moving forward economically.

Founded almost 50 years ago by just five countries, Asean has grown to a population of 630 million with a GDP of US$2.5 trillion. But the region’s differences, rivalries and different growth rates have failed to allow a stronger, political union to develop.

Apart from a small souvenir shop and a gallery on Asean history, there is little reason to visit the headquarters in Jakarta.

In contrast to the gleaming European Union in Brussels that employs thousands, Asean’s concrete offices sit in the shadow of a partly constructed overhead railway.

“The appetite to surrender sovereignty simply is not there,” said Jayant Menon of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in Manila. Asean remained “institution-light, outward-looking and market-driven”, Menon added.

Asean was established in 1967 after a Thai attempt to mediate border disputes among Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, but the bloc’s influence on political and security affairs has, if anything, declined.

EU member states must be democratic but Asean welcomes all types of dictators and keeps quiet on human rights abuses.

“Placed between the giant markets of China and India, we realised we would have nothing to offer if we [did] not create a single market,” said Tang Siew Mun, head of the Asean Studies Centre at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

This year saw the launch of the AEC but shoddy transport links hamper integration. HSBC estimates that Indonesia needs to spend more than US$1 trillion on infrastructure by 2030 and the Philippines around US$400 billion.

The ADB estimates Myanmar should spend up to US$15 billion a year on infrastructure and social investment until 2030. Much of union’s infrastructure has been neglected since it was an unloved corner of the British Indian Empire.

Roongrote Rangsiyopash, boss of Siam Cement Group, said his firm was expanding and eyeing a cement factory in Myanmar. It is not a development to be greeted with complete joy as Yangon, with its fantastic architectural legacy, could easily be transformed into a concrete monster, mirroring Bangkok.

Unfortunately the growing tensions in the South China Sea have meant governments are investing in defence rather than interconnectivity.

Asean defence spending has doubled since 2000, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, while the regional GDP has increased by 5 per cent a year on average over the same period.

But members still resemble an ant trying to molest an elephant when taking on the might of Beijing. “We are very weak in our external capabilities to protect our maritime resources. That’s why I said a while ago we need to upgrade our naval capabilities,” Philippine defence minister Delfin Lorenzana reportedly told the Nikkei Asian Review. The US has scrapped its arms embargo on Vietnam which last month said it would place air-defence missiles on the South China Sea islands it still holds.

Vietnam became the world’s eighth-largest defence importer between 2011 and 2015, the Stockholm institute reported, although its economy comes in at 48.

“The AEC is supposed to be a single market and single production base already,” said Ruth Banomyong of the Centre for Logistics Research at Thammasat University in Bangkok.

But genuine economic integration remained a distant dream. “Investing across the region is still subject to national imperatives so ‘ease of investment’ in a particular country has nothing to do with the AEC.”

So while Duterte will attract the media’s attention during the summit in Vientiane, he is not to blame for Asean’s feeble progress on the issues that count.