POSTSCRIPT / July 15, 2012 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Phnom Penh lesson: Don’t mix aid, big stick

NO CONSENSUS: The mighty United States failed Friday in its bid to have the Association of Southeast Asian Nations announce a consensus that some of its members’ territorial disputes with China be resolved by having Beijing talk with them as a group.

US State Secretary Hillary Clinton worked very hard to gain ASEAN consensus for using a multilateral approach to conflicts, but China and its friends in the bloc insisted on a bilateral formula or Beijing’s talking one-on-one with its adversaries.

The US-China power play in the background overshadowed the ASEAN ministers’ meeting in Phnom Penh. The pressures so deepened internal differences in the bloc that the ministers failed to issue the usual final joint communiqué.

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CHINA TARGET: For a while earlier, there was a flicker of hope for a consensus. The ministers looked kindly on a draft set of rules governing maritime rights and navigation, and procedures for when governments disagree.

But non-participant China, the obvious target, sniffed at it and said that the proposed rules were just for navigating the sea lanes in the region and not for resolving territorial disputes.

Some ASEAN members, among them the Philippines, obliquely blamed the shooting down of the multilateral approach on Cambodia, the current chairman and host.

Along with Laos and Myanmar, Cambodia is known to be in the shadow of Beijing. China has been pumping substantial aid and investment to these neighbors in the peninsula to boost their economy and improve the lives of their population.

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U.S.-PHL BID FAILS: While the US has a number of tested friends in ASEAN, the Phnom Penh meeting showed that the 10-member regional bloc (pop: 600 million) aiming to become an economic union is not under the thumb of Washington.

Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, emboldened by Secretary Clinton behind him, argued for inserting into the final communiqué the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal issue and the need for multilateral action.

The secretary’s valiant efforts coupled with Clinton’s not too subtle pressure were to no avail. Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, the chair, saw no consensus emerging for a multilateral approach to territorial disputes and that was that.

“I have told my colleagues that the meeting of the ASEAN foreign ministers is not a court, a place to give a verdict about the dispute,” he said.

The Cambodia-led minority could have been voted down, but ASEAN – hewing to Asian practice – frowned on putting delicate issues to a vote and dividing the house. It preferred less abrasive consultation and open discussion evolving into a consensus that the chair could then announce – if he wanted to.

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COURTING ASIANS: The Phnom Penh disappointment should bring to the attention of the US, again, a few things about the peoples in this Pacific part of the world.

One: Although China lags behind the US in economic muscle and military might, it has the advantage of being a resident power in the region. The fact of geography, as pointed out in Postscript last July 10, argues in China’s favor.

Two: After years of neglect, a super-rich suitor does not just dump tons of aid, a pile of refurbished military materiel and promised billions in investment to win the object of its alleged affection.

Three: The best time for Public Relations, as it is with wooing Asians, is when the suitor has no big problem yet. Hypocrisy shows when one with a PR or courtship problem belatedly rushes in bearing gifts with price tags still attached.

Remarks: The US should just patiently keep at it and demonstrate its sincerity over time. Not all poor people are easily blinded by the glitter of promised aid and planned investment. Also, drop the big stick. It gets in the way.

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NORTH HARBOR: The Romero father-and-son team transforming North Harbor into a world-class port must have found a gold mine. Some rival investors have been throwing mud at them in an effort to discredit and dislodge them.

Now the target of a demolition job, Reghis II Romero (father) and Michael Romero (son) are chairman and president/CEO, respectively, of Harbor Center Port Terminal Inc.

Their foray into port operation was by accident, or maybe fate. In possession of a 79-hectare property along R10 Road in Tondo, they focused on transforming the once decrepit, crime-ridden port into one of Asia’s best.

With upgrading all around, the operation of HCPTI has grown. Aside from the Manila North Harbor Port Inc., the Romeros now also manage the Manila North Harbor Port Terminal, the operator of the North Harbor.

That was the signal for the crabs to come crawling out to bring them down.

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DEMOLITION: For the past weeks, new items have been planted in media on supposed violations by HCPTI of environmental laws involving their alleged stockpiling of coal.

The stories came out complete with pictures of coal mounds near the bay. The uniformly written stories attributed to a Party-List congressman accused Romero of illegally stockpiling coal in HCPTI and causing pollution.

The firm has answered all the allegations but the attack continues. Some headlines have turned out to be false like the one where DENR Secretary Paje reportedly issued a cease and desist order. Paje denied issuing such an order.

The same pictures were submitted and used during an investigation by City Hall, which cleared HCPTI of any wrongdoing two years ago. One picture of a coal yard used in the demolition campaign has turned out to be not in HCPTI but on Pier 18.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 15, 2012)

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