SINCE most of us here in the Philippines have had it just about up to here with major summit meetings after suffering through last week’s APEC persecution, not many are aware or give a hoot that the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit was held immediately afterward in Kuala Lumpur.
The Asean meet, which wrapped up on Sunday, had two noteworthy, though not necessarily, positive outcomes. The first was the formal announcement of the launch of the Asean Economic Community (AEC), and the second was the recklessly gleeful way President BS Aquino 3rd tossed threats and insults at China over its expansion in the South China Sea from the safety of a spot a foot or two behind an agitated US President Barack Obama, who has spent the entire week trying to salvage his Asia-centric foreign policy.
An AFP wire report did not fail to highlight the hokey drum-beating ceremony the 10 Asean heads of state performed as part of the announcement (and no matter how harshly—and accurately—my friend Katrina Stuart Santiago bashed the kitchiness of the Philippines’ stylistic treatment of the APEC summit, Malaysia puts this country in deep shade when it comes to staging a tacky display). The AFP report sarcastically described the launch of the AEC as only having been done so that the Asean members could say they beat their deadline of the end 2015.
That is actually not news; Asean more than a year ago resigned itself to the reality that the AEC was going to be nowhere near being a functioning trade pact by this year. Most of the work, about 85 percent of the tasks on the grand checklist of implementation steps, has actually been done, but the steps that remain are the most challenging, in most cases requiring significant changes in Constitutions and other fundamental domestic policies. For example, the Philippines cannot fully accede to the AEC without revising its constitutional restrictions on foreign ownership, something that seems highly unlikely to happen for at least the next couple of years, if at all.
Although the Asean did not come up with the holy grail that Aquino has spent the last four or five years seeking—a collective statement condemning China’s active pursuit of its maritime claims, and backing the Philippines’ stance—the rhetoric was a little sharper this year. A quarter-billion dollars in military equipment pledged by Obama for the Southeast Asian countries may have had something to do with that. But the only tangible result was a souring of moods, with the only real difference between what happened in Kuala Lumpur and what happened at the APEC meeting being that it was Chinese Premier Li Keqiang speaking up to tell Obama and the US to back off this time, since President Xi Jinping already took his turn to do so in Manila.
Obama is a pretty smart guy, and I assume he passed the same history classes all of us who are products of the American public education system did, so the historical parallel between China now and the US in the early part of the 19th century should not be lost on him. For everyone else’s benefit, however—particularly the president of this country, who has long been rumored to have been somewhat more challenged than most by basic education—the historical development of interest here is the Monroe Doctrine. In 1823, in his annual report to Congress (back then, it wasn’t called a State of the Union address, and it was delivered to the Legislature by the postman, not the president himself), President James Monroe included a statement almost as an afterthought: Any further attempts to colonize Latin America by the European powers would be considered an act of aggression by the United States, and the US would take whatever means it felt were necessary to defend its sphere of influence.
Europe at that time was just beginning to enjoy some recovery and growth from the upheaval of the Napoleonic era, which had weakened the Continental powers to the extent that most of their Latin American possession had slipped from their grasp, or were in the process of doing so (between 1810 and 1825, 15 present-day South and Central American nations gained their independence). In the meantime, the US, largely untouched by Europe’s turmoil (with the exception of the War of 1812 with England, which in any case didn’t work out too well for the British), had developed rapidly and was almost (but not quite) capable of throwing its weight around. Monroe had some balls to make his pronouncement when he did because if Europe seriously challenged the US, the Americans might not have been able to back it up. As it was, though, things in Europe were still a little tenuous, and America was just a little too big, and, more importantly, had become just a little too vital as a trade partner for Europe to risk doing any more than to complain about Monroe’s suddenly declaring the Caribbean Sea an American lake.
China in the 21st century is America in the 19th, and that is why China will ultimately succeed. The Chinese seem to have taken this lesson fully onboard as well, and are doing a fairly admirable job of pairing their stick of aggressiveness in the South China Sea with the carrot of legitimately helpful development tools such as their Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and the proposed Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific, which gained a lot more attention from the APEC than did the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership.
All of which is bad news for the Philippines and its rusty old Vietnam-era foreign policy doctrine of sticking with America at all costs, because it places this country most firmly on the wrong side of history. If it persists, it can look forward to a development path like Belize, the former British Honduras, which only gained its independence in 1981 (about 160 years behind schedule), and still lags behind its Central American neighbors. That is pretty sad, because most of the Central American countries are far from being shining examples of economic development.