“If governments can’t do it then perhaps the people should.” That seemed to be the message out of China this week from a conference that offered a refreshing insight into the thinking of regional leaders and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Organized by the China NGO Network for International Exchange (CNIE), delegates from 11 Southeast Asian countries met with Chinese officials against a backdrop of increased trade, but also heightened tensions over territorial claims in the South China Sea.
One by one, delegates were led to podiums where they issued statements urging a substantial increase in people-to-people exchanges designed to increase dialogue and reduce the potential for conflict, Xinhua reported.
"Many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Cambodia are having exchanges with those in China. I strongly encourage this because it will contribute to our common prosperity," said Ung Huot, a former first prime minister of Cambodia.
In keeping with the political tone of the conference held in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Xinhua also reported that Ung said increased communication would create a win-win situation for China and Southeast Asian nations.
Filipino Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. echoed this sentiment, saying it was necessary to enhance non-governmental exchanges between China and the Philippines in the areas of tourism, education and health care.
Sidney C. Bata, director of the Ricardo Leong Center for Chinese Studies at Ateneo de Manila University, added that young Filipinos are not well acquainted with China, underlining the urgent need for both countries to encourage communication.
And on it went, with Liu Qibao, head of the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee; Noppamest Suwannamai, a researcher at the Thai-Chinese Strategic Research Center in Bangkok; Zhang Xinsheng, honorary vice president of CNIE; and Li Jinjun, vice minister of the International Department of the CPC’s Central Committee; all saying pretty much the same thing.
It’s an old argument that goes to the traditional core of ASEAN – and even the European Union – that says strong human ties across borders can succeed where politicians have failed and stop disputes from escalating into conflict.
Talk fests like this are rare, particularly in China. It could hardly be described as a protest but the idea that politicians, scholars and businessmen were offering a subtle alternative to the belligerence and military posturing in the South China Seas — where Chinese claims over the Spratly and Paracel islands have pushed it deep into the recognized territory of its Southeast Asian neighbors – was a change.
The disputes have been a source of major friction in recent years. This week Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command warned that the U.S. would not allow any country to seize control of the disputed territory. Further, many expect the issue to dominate talks between U.S. President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping when they meet in California next week.
That meeting will be an historic event and no doubt the world will focus on whether the pair can deliver more than talk.