Many forums leave leaders stretched thin

Many forums leave leaders stretched thin

OVER breakfast in Cebu last Thursday, my attention was snagged by a couple of headlines on the front page of The Philippine Star.

One noted that President Benigno Aquino has cancelled plans to attend the Asia-Europe Meeting in Brussels next month so he can concentrate on domestic issues.

The other headline indicated how pressing those issues are when it revealed that his government loses out on more than US$200 million to illegal gambling operations every year.

As well, Aquino is still battling negative fallout from the August 23 bus hostage debacle that left eight Hong Kong tourists dead and left him looking like he’d been asleep at the wheel.

It is good, then, that he will forego the Brussels shindig, especially as some other leaders are doing the same.

In fact, they all engage in far too much needless summitry, given that they have problems at home just as severe as Aquino’s.

Talkfests like Asia-Europe Meeting beggar credulity when they suck in the heads of state of 10 Southeast Asian countries, plus China, Japan, South Korea, India, Mongolia, Pakistan and 27 European Union members.

Instead, it should be a forum for economic and foreign ministers, or even better, just for senior bureaucrats.

That would allow leaders to focus on more important meetings like this week’s United Nations General Assembly and the second United States-ASEAN summit, also in New York this Friday.

Focus is certainly needed, because some regional leaders appear determined to try to torpedo the conclave with United States President Barack Obama.

And that is very stupid, given that the United States has three times the investment in ASEAN that it does in China and 10 times more than in India.

Yet despite this, several ASEAN leaders have decided not to make the effort to meet Obama on Friday.

Vietnam will send lame duck President Nguyen Minh Triet, who is retiring in January and in any case is a symbolic figure with no power.

The head of government, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, will stay home to continue an already doomed struggle for his political life in view of the economic malaise he has brought the nation.

Myanmar’s General Than Shwe will send his puppet Foreign Minister Nyan Win – hardly a surprise since the United Nations is mooting a commission of inquiry for crimes against humanity by his military regime.

The leader of Laos’s Communist Party, General Choummaly Sayasone, will also decline to meet Obama and will send Prime Minister Bouasone Bouphavanh, who ranks seventh in the Politburo, which Choummaly heads.

Far more crucial than these no-shows, however, is Indonesian President Susilio Bambang Yudhoyono, the incoming chairman of ASEAN, who has just confirmed that he will not attend.

He blames the short notice and prior engagements – tepid excuses, of course, allowing him to gain revenge for Obama’s quadruple cancellations of visits to Indonesia.

Said Ernest Bower, Southeast Asia Programme director at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington: “By passing up Obama’s invitation, Yudhoyono raises serious questions about where US-ASEAN relations are heading.”

He is right. Dung, Choummaly and Than Shwe can be written off, but not Yudhoyono, who leads the region’s biggest economy and the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation.

Indeed, not only must the implications of postponing the Yudhoyono-less event now be explored, but the region’s leaders must consider drastically pruning their entire summit schedule.

For sure, the regular Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and ASEM meetings can be nixed with little loss, as well as the daft practice, introduced this year, of having two annual ASEAN summits.

To avoid more no-shows like those of Aquino and Yudhoyono, it would be better to stick to one ASEAN summit and one East Asia Summit each year.

The rest can be shelved and the money saved can be used for rural schools and hospitals not for floors of suites in the world’s top hotels.

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