If you are invited to tea at the home of someone you respect, do you go early, on time or an hour late?
That was how long the Chinese kept the Asean relatives waiting in their Phnom Penh home yesterday. The Filipino had been warming her seat more than an hour (okay she was early – and she probably has a lot to say and needed to get psyched up) The rest were in their seats soon after. They waited and waited. Then they got up for loo breaks, to bring in cups of coffee or move around the room backslapping one another and making small talk.
The Vietnamese elder, who was supposed to chair the meeting with the Chinese, had walked in earlier – and walked out. Apparently, the absent Chinese needed his presence away from the bystanders and gong bangers who were gathered in the room to take pictures.
As is always the case with media people, the gossip mill went into overdrive. The more conspiracy-minded thought the Chinese were being tardy on purpose. They had always said they didnt want to discuss the South China Sea so maybe the strategy was to get to the meeting with just half an hour to spare.
Others noted that the elders in the room were actually minor relatives. The senior ones. the ministers, were away in another room trying to bang out a statement that would say that something had been achieved between the clan and the Chinese – even if nothing was.
It seems that the Asean countries have sort of agreed among themselves that the quarrel should be solved within the context of the Treaty of Amity and Co-operation (which is itself pretty vague) and failing which, it can go up to the UN. But there’s some talk that it isn’t all so hunky dory on the Asean front. Some relatives had stronger views on the issue than others. Plus, what does China make of all of this? Makes you wonder what kind of statement will emerge from the clan that would satisfy everyone. As well as the Chinese.
When the Viet co-chair and the Chinese entered the room, it was down to business immediately. The Vietnamese talked about how Asean-China relations had been broadening and deepening over the years, and the burgeoning trade and economic relations. He threw in a lot of stats. All very nice, but everyone had their ears peeled for three words – South China Sea.
They were uttered: Eseentally, he said that they should start to talk FORMALLY about hammering out a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea, To adopt guidelines set in July 2011 on this issue. To get the 2012 workplan going.
The other co-chair, the Chinese Foreign Minister, whom everybody had been waiting for, spoke in English, much to everyone’s relief.. (When he did so in Mandarin yesterday, a mild panic went through the media and delegates who rushed to put on their translation sets). BUT he did not say those three words at all. Instead he went on about the Asean spirit, about how it was one community. About how the region, including Asean, was high on China’s diplomatic agenda.
Then the gong bangers were shooed out….so that they can hear the interesting parts.
Oh, and the big fellow arrived. On time. The Asean relatives went from the Chinese room – into the American room….
The story continues…