ASEAN Summit in Manila: On day's agenda, Narendra Modi-Donald Trump bilateral talks, focus on terrorism, South China Sea dispute

Leaders from US, India, Australia, Japan, Russia and members of the 10-bloc nation Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) are set to gather and discuss a host of issues in Manila, Philippines on Monday.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, US president Donald Trump, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and several other world leaders arrived in Manila on Sunday for the ASEAN summit which is set to extensively deliberate on evolving security challenges facing South East Asia. The ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Leaders of the ASEAN marked the 10-nation bloc's 50th anniversary with handshakes, unity photo-ops and pageantry in a gala dinner on Sunday. They have gathered for two days of summitry under tight security in Manila starting Monday and meet world leaders led by Trump to tackle a slew of security worries.

Bilateral talks to be held

Modi is expected to hold bilateral meetings with Trump and Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte, reports have said. Modi is also scheduled to have a bilateral meeting with Abe on Monday which may feature the security scenario in the Indo-Pacific region.

According to Modi's official statement before he left for Manila, Modi said, "This will be my first bilateral visit to the Philippines where I will also participate in the ASEAN-India and East Asia Summits. My participation in them symbolises India’s commitment to continue deepening relationship with ASEAN Member States, in particular, and with the Indo-Pacific region, in general, within the framework of my Government’s Act East Policy. Besides these Summits, I would also participate in Special Celebrations of the 50th anniversary of ASEAN, Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Leaders’ Meeting and ASEAN Business and Investment Summit." 

 ASEAN Summit in Manila: On days agenda, Narendra Modi-Donald Trump bilateral talks, focus on terrorism, South China Sea dispute

Photo op underway with world leaders at ASEAN summit. AP

The ties between India and ASEAN have been on an upswing in the last few years with focus being on ramping up cooperation in the areas of trade and investment as well as security and defence. "Every single country in the ASEAN region wants India to be more engaged in the region in every possible way. That is the real synergy we have with ASEAN," Indian Ambassador to Philippines Jaideep Mazumdar told PTI.

Apart from this, a slew of ASEAN leaders held bilateral talks during the ongoing summit. According to New Strait Times, Malaysian prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak met with Shinzo Abe and discussed trade and investment.

Rodrigo Duterte also met with Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull on Sunday on the sidelines of the summit, reported ABC-CBN News“I assure you that the relations between the two countries are strong, as always been, no problem for that. And we continue to cooperate in our alliances,” Duterte told Turnbull as per the report.

Meanwhile, Trump jointly met with Turnbull and Shinzo Abe on Monday. "We've made some very big steps with regard to trade - far bigger than anything you know," Trump told reporters at the beginning of the meeting in Manila, touting business deals forged between US and foreign companies.

"We've made a lot of big progress on trade. We have deficits with almost everybody. Those deficits are going to be cut very quickly and very substantially," Trump said.

While Trump seems to be lambasting countries over trade and investment, he has largely abandoned publicly pressing foreign leaders on human rights, instead showing a willingness to embrace international strongmen for strategic gain. Trump is unlikely to criticise Duterte, who last week boasted that he murdered a man with his own hands, for the sanctioned a bloody drug war that features extrajudicial killing in Philippines.

Duterte's war on drugs has alarmed human rights advocates around the world who say it has allowed police officers and vigilantes to ignore due process and to take justice into their own hands. Government officials estimate that well over 3,000 people, mostly drug users and dealers, have died in the ongoing crackdown. Human rights groups believe the victim total is far higher, perhaps closer to 9,000.

Apart from holding dialogue with ASEAN leaders, Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev is expected sign agreements with the Philippine government relating to transport, energy, and education, according to RapplerMedvedev will also hold talks on strengthening military and security cooperation between the two countries.

Top issues likely to be brought up during summit

A host of issues including poverty, conflicts, human rights crises and other problems is plaguing the 620 million-strong South East Asia region. Apart from the various meetings, numerous issues are expected to be discussed at the 31st ASEAN summit. Some of the pressing matters that are most likely to be discussed are listed below:

South China Sea

The leaders of China and ASEAN, which includes four member states directly involved in South China Sea territorial disputes, are expected to announce the start of negotiations on a so-called "code of conduct" in the contested waters based on a framework or outline that their foreign ministers endorsed in August.

Both sides would laud such progress, which China acquiesced to after the Philippines under Duterte backed down from being one of Beijing's most virulent US-backed critics. Duterte pursued a policy of rapprochement with Beijing and has not immediately pushed for Chinese compliance with an arbitration ruling by a UN-aligned tribunal that invalidated China's expansive claims in the strategic waterway.

ASEAN, however, has been dismissed as an ineffective broker largely because it tends to get paralyzed by indecision due to its consensual decision-making style when many of its member states are either aligned with China or the US. The two-page framework took 15 years to conclude and lacked key provisions, including a dispute-settlement mechanism, that China opposes.

North Korea

Manila is the last stop on Trump's Asian swing where he's expected to lobby for more punitive action, including diplomatic sanctions, against Pyongyang over its nuclear program. He'll generally find a receptive audience, with the summit's foul-mouthed host, President Rodrigo Duterte, having called North Korea's leader a "crazy son of a bitch" with a "chubby face that looks kind" but who could wipe the region off the map with his "dangerous toys."

China, which wields considerable influence on ASEAN, will, however, be a tempering presence. It has called for dialogue with North Korea and urged the United States to tone down its rhetoric, arguing that sanctions alone cannot solve the impasse.

ASEAN leaders will likely stick to their expression of alarm over Pyongyang's ballistic missile and nuclear tests and press their call for North Korea to return to long-stalled denuclearization talks.

Rohingya dilemma

It is unclear whether this will be on the bloc's official agenda this year, although Malaysia and Indonesia are likely to bring it up in talks on the meeting's sidelines.

Alarm over violence in Myanmar's western Rakhine state that has forced more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to Bangladesh will likely stay off ASEAN's formal agenda and summit communique because its member states, which include Myanmar, uphold a bedrock policy of non-interference in each other's domestic affairs.

File image of Myanmar state councillor Aung San Suu Kyi. AP

File image of Myanmar state councillor Aung San Suu Kyi. AP

"ASEAN summits are not designed to actually construct policy responses to major human rights issues that affect the whole region," said David Mathieson, a former human rights researcher who is now an independent analyst based in Myanmar. "Right now, Suu Kyi's government is benefiting from ASEAN's culture of inaction."

While the policy has held back the regional group from taking a stronger and more relevant stance on such calamities in step with much of the international community, it has allowed ASEAN to endure as a club of nations with disparate backgrounds.

Individually, however, heads of state can raise concern and outrage over the Rohingya crisis during their so-called "retreat," a free-for-all but closed-door session. Malaysia, among others, is expected to push Myanmar to take stronger steps to address the humanitarian problem, which has caused many of the Rohingya to flee to its territory. Malaysia has also pushed the Philippine host to allow a stronger statement on the crisis, causing some tension.

"If it will be discussed, it will be up to Myanmar to raise the issue because this a domestic concern for them," Robespierre Bolivar, spokesman of Manila's Department of Foreign Affairs, told AP.

Muslim militants

The siege by pro-Islamic State group militants that left at least 1,172 combatants and civilians dead and left swaths of the southern Philippine city of Marawi in smoldering rubbles will be on every leader's mind in Manila.

Although Philippine troops have essentially crushed the five-month insurrection, the massive militant attack served as a reality check for governments of the new scale of havoc Islamic State-aligned militants could wreak on urban areas.

Consequently, the main summit venue in a theater complex by Manila Bay has been placed in a security lockdown and declared a no-fly and no-sail zone. Nearly 60,000 police and military personnel will keep watch in Manila and Clark Freeport to the north where some of the leaders will land and senior diplomats are meeting.

Duterte plans to brief leaders on how Filipino forces quelled the siege. ASEAN states and their Asian and Western counterparts find a common interest in addressing the resurgent threat of terrorism and radicalization without much friction.

With inputs from AP and PTI

Updated Date: Nov 13, 2017 14:31:22 IST