17may02-Consensus avoids dividing the house

POSTSCRIPT / May 2, 2017 / Tuesday
Consensus avoids dividing the house
By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

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COLLEGIAL decision-making through consensus has been a cultural hallmark of Asian diplomatic conferences. Its use dates back to the post-war days when the Department of Foreign Affairs was still “Padre Faura” to the media, sometimes cut to “Faura” in tight news heads.

(Padre Faura is the name of the street in Ermita district where the DFA head office used to be located. By way of footnote, the street was named after Fr. Federico Faura, SJ, director of the Manila Observatory that stood on that street.)

Filipino diplomats at the time explained to us that Asians are generally sensitive (easily ruffled like their barong tagalog sewn from piña fabric), disdaining open clashes in multi-nation deliberations. Animated debates ending in a showdown vote, or a “division of the house,” are avoided.

(To date this recollection of ours, Armando Manalo, a fine writer and father of acting Foreign Secretary Enrique Gonzales Manalo, was then one of the best in the nationalist corps of foreign affairs officers manning Padre Faura.)

An Asian conference chair, respectful of the sensibilities of the participants, usually just keeps the exchange going, but avoiding a vote. When the matter is sufficiently discussed, the chair closes the debate, consults with those who have expressed strong opinion, and announces a consensus.

There is no clear-cut vote, the type that is commonly cast in deliberative bodies in the West, no division of the house. But the consensus that is announced by the chair after due consultations with the proper parties is respected.

In group decision-making by way of consensus, there is not much divisiveness, no loss of face and lingering resentment — a key ingredient of long-term relationships that many Westerners venturing into Asia sometimes fail to consider.

As far as we can gather, consensus was what carried the just-concluded summit meeting in Manila of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations preceded by lower-level consultations of ministers and technical officials.

That explains partly how the ASEAN chair, President Rodrigo Duterte, arrived at his concluding statement summarizing in 10,845 words the torrent of views expressed on a vast variety of topics of concern to the 625 million ASEAN citizens.

It also shows how the neighbors who gathered in Manila reposed that much faith in President Duterte as chair of a bloc caught in the clashing interests of the big powers drawn to the world’s sixth largest economy.

Paragraph 38 in the chair’s report said that the ASEAN economic community has recorded a “combined GDP (of) US$2.55 trillion in 2016 with a robust year-on-year real GDP growth rate of 4.7 percent despite the challenging global environment… Growth in the region’s economy is expected to accelerate to 4.8 percent in 2017 supported by solid growth of private consumption and investment as well as expansionary fiscal policy… ASEAN’s merchandise trade remained resilient at $1.06 trillion in the first half of 2016, of which 24.02 percent was intra-ASEAN… ASEAN also attracted a total of $52.94 billion foreign direct investment inflows.”

Asean chair’s summary stands, till…

SINCE on record none of the 10 member-nations made any reservation in the final communiqué issued by President Duterte, we must conclude that his fellow ASEAN leaders have accepted it.

The chair’s summary report drew criticism for not mentioning the 2016 award of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague that invalidated China’s claim over virtually all of the South China Sea dotted by claims of some ASEAN members, including the Philippines.

But the chair’s statement stands until it is overturned, which we doubt will happen, in a proper ASEAN form. Arbitration lawyer Mario E. Valderrama asked in an email “Would the South China Sea disputes be resolved?” and he answered:

“I don’t think so, at least not for generations. Just to give an idea of the complexity of the issues: the maritime boundary disputes (overlapping EEZ’s and conflicting claims over ‘reefs’) and disputes over ‘rocks’ (not within the domain of UNCLOS) involve not only the Philippines and China, but also Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.

“No one is expected to give in to any of the others. All claims are preserved.”

To a question asked him on TV, Indonesian President Joko Widodo stated in substance that “ASEAN will bring the arbitral award to China once ASEAN is united.” Like most everybody, Valderrama remarked: “When that will happen is anybody’s guess.”

He added: “The summit is neither the time nor the place to bring up the China Issue. ASEAN operates by consensus. One dissenting vote and the issue is shelved. By the time of the summit, everything is already in place. The time to raise the issue is during the ministerial pre-summit conferences.

“And it was in fact raised. If then Secretary Perfecto Yasay were to be believed, perhaps up to four members (or less than a majority) favored the raising of the issue. To which disclosure China reportedly cried foul as what took place was supposed to be confidential.

“In any event, we are talking about matters that are the private concerns of the Philippines vis-à-vis China. The award itself is only binding between China and the Philippines, nobody else — assuming that the tribunal has jurisdiction, which is now a matter of academic discussion.

“Fishing and mineral rights in the Philippine EEZ and continental shelf, the occupation by China of ‘reefs’ in the Philippine EEZ… these are not necessarily areas of concern of other countries. And in certain instances, some members of ASEAN even have conflicting claims over areas claimed by the Philippines.”

(First published in The Philippine STAR of May 2, 2017)

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